In 1977, Cindy Sherman began shooting her renowned series known as Untitled Film Stills. In these photographs, Cindy Sherman donned costumes and situated herself in several locations. There was nothing really extraordinary that stood out among these photos. In fact, many of them are quite mundane. However, lying within this mundanity, in addition to the sheer volume (she shot over 70 of these) and ambiguity, is a commentary on the stereotypical roles of women in film.
Years later, another photographer captured images of herself within staged scenes in a series titled The Kitchen Table Series. Just like Sherman’s series, nothing was completely out of the ordinary in these photos. At first glance, they look like something out of the film roll of any ordinary family or film stills from a yet-to-be-seen film. A woman is embracing a man. A mother is teaching her daughter how to put on make-up. A woman is getting her hair done by another. Scenes from daily life. They’re all completely ordinary, yet that is exactly why they are extraordinary.
To properly contextualize Weems’ The Kitchen Table Series, one must first take a look at a study done in 1964-5 by Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan. His report, titled The Negro Family: The Case For National Action but also known as the Moynihan Report, looked at African American families in the United States and concluded that many of the downfalls of the community were due to weak family bonds and structures. Once published, the report was criticized by civil rights activists for its many inaccuracies. They accused Moynihan of assuming that his ideal family dynamic, one most often associated with white families, was the only correct one and that he was unable to see the intricacies of African American families. Many also mentioned that Moynihan ignored the existence of other, more racially charged reasons that African Americans were often living in poverty or with lesser education. Unfortunately, the damage was already done. This report became one of the driving forces that helped perpetuate harmful stereotypes of African American families that still exist to this day.
In the late 70s, Weems documented the lives of the African American families that she knew, families within communities that were close and had strong bonds. Titled Family Pictures and Stories, Black people were photographed as hard-working people who spend time with their families. The complete opposite of what the Moynihan Report claimed.
The Kitchen Table Series is, in a way, a follow-up to Weems’s earlier documentation. Staged as it was, the scenes are a reflection of normal, ordinary life, one that’s filled with happiness, sadness, love, grief, and everything in between. They are normal scenes of a normal family. It just so happens that the actors within it are African Americans.
Weems never intended for her work to be such a seminal piece about Black identity. The (sometimes) unfortunate side effect of an artist belonging to a minority group is that their work will always be tied to their identity. In an interview with W Magazine, Weems said, “I think that most work that’s made by black artists is considered to be about blackness. Unlike work that’s made by white artists, which is assumed to be universal at its core.” The Kitchen Table Series is universal in nature. Anyone, no matter their racial identity, gender, or sexuality can identify with the characters within these photographs. To grieve, to laugh, to love, to build and have a family is a universal experience that we all have experienced at one point or another. Its universality is one of the reasons the work is still meaningful to this day. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the work has sort of stood the test of time and entered the culture in this unique way: You can use it to have many, many kinds of discussions about things that are going on in the world today.”
Since then, Carrie Mae Weems has created many more powerful pieces of art. One particularly noteworthy one, titled From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, used archival photographs of Africans and African-Americans, most of whom are slaves or former slaves, with some of those photographs belonging to Harvard. She used these images to create a heartwrenching series that turned these cold, dehumanizing daguerreotypes into tender, humanizing portraits that paid tribute to the sufferings they had to go through.
The Kitchen Table Series, however, is the one that she is often remembered by, much like Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills was hers. Many artists saw this series as the first time they ever saw themselves represented in the art world. Because of this series, and Weems herself, they were inspired to create their own works that would further increase the presence of Black artists in the world.
The Kitchen Table Series at first glance is a group of ordinary photographs documenting the daily life of an ordinary woman. But placed within the context of our world, it becomes a powerful message about family, representation, and how images can shape our view of the world.