Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman Feeding Bird), from The Kitchen Table Series

Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman Feeding Bird), The Kitchen Table Series, 1990, gelatin silver print (printed 2015), 27.94 x 27.94 cm @ Carrie Mae Weems (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, looking at a photographic print by Carrie Mae Weems. The photograph is known as “Untitled,” but parenthetically, “Woman Feeding Bird.”

Lauren Haynes: [0:16] This print is part of Carrie Mae Weems’ iconic “Kitchen Table Series,” a series which she started in 1989 and finished in 1990 that looks at a woman and is centered around the kitchen table.

Dr. Zucker: [0:30] The kitchen is such a center of gravity in the home.

Lauren: [0:34] It’s where food and nourishment comes from. There’s a place to sit. It’s where important conversations often happen in families.

Dr. Zucker: [0:41] In that way the kitchen table is such a metaphor for all of life’s most intimate experiences, all of your vulnerabilities, all of your triumphs and failures.

Lauren: [0:50] And where you can have these individual experiences. I think the full range of emotion can take place around a kitchen table.

Dr. Zucker: [0:58] We’re seeing one print here, but it’s part of a series, and the artist was clear that these photographs stand on their own, but they can be seen together, and they can be seen with a series of texts that were made soon after the photography itself was completed.

Lauren: [1:12] The complete “Kitchen Table Series” is 20 prints and 14 text panels.

Dr. Zucker: [1:16] Weems said that when she was making this series, she worked every day on it, and she brought in people from the neighborhood, her friends, and even people that she met on the street. People that she posed, that she staged. These are not snapshots. These are constructed images.

Lauren: [1:32] Carrie Mae Weems is telling a story with her photographs. She has a background in folklore and photography, so she is always combining those two. These are thought-out, planned-out scenes.

Dr. Zucker: [1:42] There’s tension in some of them, where you see struggles between a mother and child, between lovers, but here, we see solitude. We see a woman alone.

Lauren: [1:52] In this particular print, she is feeding a bird, the bird in a cage.

Dr. Zucker: [1:57] All of the scenes are photographed from the far end of the table. The vertical lines of the butcher-block top lead our eye into the scene, but that table also separates us. We’re not quite seated at the table. Our vantage is a little too high. We’re always a viewer, not a participant.

Lauren: [2:15] We’re meant to observe, but it isn’t our experience.

Dr. Zucker: [2:18] We see this woman who is occupying the space between the rectangle of the door and the circle from which the birdcage hangs. There is this geometric frame that she’s constructed for that figure.

Lauren: [2:31] It’s capped off with the way that the light hangs from the ceiling, and that it’s creating a spotlight, guiding you to look at her body, and look at how her hands are posed on the chair, holding a cigarette, as well as the other hand, posed, about to feed the bird.

Dr. Zucker: [2:45] The modulation of light is beautiful. It’s soft and intimate.

Lauren: [2:50] Weems has deliberately left certain areas darker or left certain areas less sharp.

Dr. Zucker: [2:56] It’s so interesting, because the light focuses our attention on an absence, on the space above the table, where there is nothing. In order to see what’s taking place, we have to see past that illuminated area, into the dimmer light beyond.

[3:10] She’s even obscured her face a little bit. Not only is it in that dimmer light, and against the darker image on the back wall, but she’s turned her face slightly away.

Lauren: [3:19] She’s interacting with the bird, and then that’s where the primary connection is happening.

Dr. Zucker: [3:23] The caged bird is such a historically powerful symbol, the idea of entrapment, the idea of a thing that is kept for its beauty, for its song, but kept inside.

Lauren: [3:33] When we think about the role of women in art and history, this idea of the caged bird representing a woman.

Dr. Zucker: [3:39] For so much of the history of art, our attention was on a portrait of a famous person, of a politically powerful person. It was heroic. Here, there’s a flipping, and we have a celebration of the most intimate space. This is the power of a woman in this domestic environment.

Lauren: [3:57] It’s bringing to the fore the importance of this, that we think about women in domestic spaces and have often been dismissed.

[4:05] Sure, a woman is in the kitchen, that’s where she spends a lot of time, but with this series, and this print in particular, Weems is asking us to look a little deeper, to think more about the importance of this space.

Dr. Zucker: [4:15] And the multi-dimensionality of that space, the extraordinary range of emotions and activities that take place here, and that occupy a woman’s life.

Lauren: [4:24] The kitchen is the center, and it’s not just a place where food is made, but it is a place where home happens.

[4:31] [music]

Cite this page as: Lauren Haynes, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman Feeding Bird), from The Kitchen Table Series," in Smarthistory, September 12, 2018, accessed July 20, 2024,