All posts in “Object of the Week”

Object of the Week: Untitled (Woman standing)

Weems, desiring freedom while poised in the face of a troubling historical ground, beckons the viewer with the question: can you see me, which is not a matter of faculty but one of recognition.

– Adrienne Edwards, “Scenes of the Flesh: Thinking-Feeling Carrie Mae Weem’s Kitchen Table Series Twenty-Five Years On,” 2016

Untitled (Woman standing) is one of 20 carefully staged photographs in the Kitchen Table Series by Carrie Mae Weems. Focusing on the daily life and domestic space of a subject played by the artist, the photographs are often read as autobiographical. While self-representation is no doubt central to this body of work (loosely based on Weems’s own experiences), Untitled (Woman standing)—and the rest of the Kitchen Table Series—is a meditation on the way Black women are represented in American culture more broadly.

Together, the photographic series stages intimate scenes, all taking place around the kitchen table. Captured from the same vantage point, we see a range of quotidian moments: Weems’s character embracing—and being embraced by—her lover, playing cards with her daughters, seeking consolation from friends, and, every once in a while, by herself in moments of sadness, contemplation, happiness, pleasure, and, in this instance, confidence. The series represents the various roles she inhabits as a mother, friend, daughter, romantic partner, and sexual being.

Interested in systems of power and oppression, Weems mobilizes photography to challenge the medium’s assumed authenticity and explore its fictional possibilities, ultimately controlling the narrative she presents to viewers. And while Weems’s character is often the focus, she is never the sole subject of the composition—the evolution of her relationships is a central topic. In addition, curator Adrienne Edwards calls attention to the role the table plays in the series, addressing its presence as an important conceit:

Along with Weems, it [the kitchen table] is a recurring figure in the photographs. The table’s symbolic significance is a direct reference to the structures that shape and reinforce the intersection of the concepts of race, gender, and class that are at the center of Weems’s art.[1]

Throughout the series, the table acts as a witness to the cast of characters in the domestic space. Here, it is as if Weems, pressing down on the table surface, is pushing against its stability and order in an attempt to upend it. Similarly, the hanging lamp can be seen as a metaphor for illumination—shedding light on “fundamental issues concerning American society and culture and black women’s role in it”—while also pointing to another use for such a light: interrogation.[2]

In the words of the artist, “My responsibility as an artist is to work, to sing for my supper, to make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless; to shout bravely from the rooftops and storm barricaded doors and voice the specificity of our historical moment.”[3]

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Adrienne Edwards, “Scenes of the Flesh: Thinking-Feeling Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table Series Twenty-Five Years On,” in Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series (Bologna, Italy: Damiani, 2016), 10-11.
[2] Edwards, 14.
[3] Lauren Hansen, “Meet MacArthur Award Winner Carrie Mae Weems,” The Week,
Untitled (Woman standing) from the “Kitchen Table” Series, 1990, Carrie Mae Weems, gelatin silver print, 28 1/4 x 28 1/4 in., Gift of Vascovitz Family, 2012.13.3, © Carrie Mae Weems. Clockwise from left: Untitled (Man and mirror), Untitled (Woman and phone), Untitled (Woman and daughter with children); Untitled (Woman playing solitaire) from the “Kitchen Table Series,” 1990, Carrie Mae Weems.

Object of the Week: Money Tree

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will—throughout the month of February—highlight works by celebrated black artists in the SAM Collection.

Walk through Harlem any given day and you will see David Hammons’ work. The work he does for people who cannot go to SoHo and gallery-hop. The people that he knows. The people he comes from. Bottles stuck on top of bare branches protruding from the ground. From vacant lots and cracks and crevices in the sidewalk. Hammons transforms them. Creates visual music and something to smile about in an environment that doesn’t offer a lot in the way of jokes.  

— Dawoud Bey, “David Hammons: Purely and Artist,” 1982

David Hammons is often described as an elusive figure, an artist who has openly rebuked and skirted the art world, despite his successes within it.[1] A master of materials and the meanings they carry, Hammons deftly reworks objects—often found or discarded—in novel ways, representing Black experience through symbol and metaphor, “physically composed from the material elements of his experience.”[2] As Hammons once put it: “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.”[3] Well, when he messes around with a symbol.

Working outside traditional arts institutions, Hammons imbues his sculptures, installations, photography, and performance with potent signifiers mined from materials grounded in Black urban life. Take, for example, the tree pictured here: pierced with a circular band, the trunk becomes a sculptural object whose form and tongue-in-cheek title, Money Tree, obliquely reference a basketball hoop. Despite the endless wealth to which the title alludes, the rather barren scene warrants a more nuanced interpretation.

For Hammons, basketball—a sport dominated by Black athletes—is not a guarantee of economic success, but rather acts as both a “foil and object of devotion” in Black communities.[4] Though speaking specifically to a 1983 piece titled Higher Goals (pictured below), a sculptural work that also mobilizes basketball as metaphor, Hammons’ own words can provide some insight:

It’s an anti-basketball sculpture. Basketball has become a problem in the black community because kids aren’t getting an education. They’re pawns in someone else’s game…. It means you should have higher goals in life than basketball.[5]

Treated with equal parts empathy and irony, Money Tree acknowledges the reality that, for many Black communities, basketball is regarded as an opportunity to excel within a society whose systems unfairly work against people of color. In a country that deeply reveres professional sports and its athletes, basketball is thus seen as an avenue to success. Yet, Money Tree also undercuts this very notion, simultaneously functioning as a cautionary tale and pointed commentary on race and class in America.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] In the essay “Wreaking Havoc on the Signified: David Hammons,” Coco Fusco articulates: “No account of Hammons’ art is entirely devoid of references to his streetwise, resolutely anti-elitist persona. He has become infamous for his acerbic appraisals of high art, and his willed cultivation of a split between a black interpretative community to which he directs his messages, and a now admiring (once indifferent) white art world he loves to snub, tease and confuse.” Coco Fusco, “Wreaking Havoc on the Signified: David Hammons,” Frieze, May 7, 1995,
[2] Kellie Jones, “The Structure of Myth and the Potency of Magic,” in David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 16.
[3] Holland Cotter, “David Hammons Is Still Messing With What Art Means,” The New York Times, March 24, 2016,
[4] Franklin Sirmans, “Searching for Mr. Hammons,” in David Hammons: Selected Works (New York: Zwirner & Wirth, 2006), np.
[5] David Hammons quoted by Douglas C. McGill, “Hammons’ Visual Music,” in The New York Times, July 18, 1986, section 3, p. 15. Image: Higher Goals, 1983, fifty-five foot tall basketball poles, 121st Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard, Harlem.
Image: Money Tree, 1992, David Hammons, gelatin silver photograph, 16 1/2 x 11 in., Gift of Greg Kucera and Larry Yocom, 97.77, © David Hammons. Higher Goals, 1983, David Hammons, 55′ tall basketball poles, 121st Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard, Harlem. Photo: Dawoud Bey. © David Hammons

Object of the Week: Chop Plate

When you think of Rockwell Kent, Herman Melville’s 1930 edition of Moby Dick might first come to mind, as his illustrations for the great American novel are, for many, as beloved as the story of the whale itself. A celebrated draughtsman, printmaker, author, and explorer, Kent’s highly stylized brand of social realism was reproduced in many contexts, and has since become inextricable from the American visual culture of the 1930s and 40s. The artist’s prolific output is difficult to summarize, but a large majority of his work depicts human figures set against the natural world—compositions informed by his interest in transcendentalist philosophy.

Also a self-proclaimed pacifist and socialist, Kent’s political leanings often imbued his work with a proletarian sentiment: images of the working class transitioning from an agrarian to industrial society. With this in mind, Kent’s predilection for working in mediums that saw mass production and widespread distribution—such as bookplates, book jackets, prints, advertisements, and posters—might also explain his willingness to work with California-based Vernon Kilns on designs for a line of dinnerware, perhaps the most utilitarian of the aforementioned objects.

Adapted from the illustrations Kent created for his 1935 book titled Salamina, a chronicle of his life and travels while in Greenland, this hand-tinted chop plate (a round platter) focuses our attention on the strong, kneeling body of a beautiful young woman: Salamina.[1] Rendered with Kent’s characteristic graphic sensibility, her body and surrounding landscape are comprised of geometric highlights and shadows. In the middle ground, between her feet and the mountains behind her—colorful triangles of blue, yellow, and brown—are an adobe-style house and bird’s nest. While these details are suggestive of the American Southwest, they are likely of Greenland (during the summer, of course) and present a romanticized portrait of both a person and a place, basking in golden hour light. With the addition of the doves and flowers, it evinces an air of nostalgia for a time when human beings lived in harmony with the natural world.

Unfortunately for Kent, this line of dinnerware (as well as two others made for Vernon Kilns) is a lesser-known aspect of his career. Due to its short production span and the fallout resulting from the artist’s outspoken political views, many people are unaware of the series and Kent’s contributions to the American decorative arts.[2]

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Chop plate, 1939, Rockwell Kent, ceramic with hand-tinted decoration, 1 x 13 7/8 in., Decorative Arts Purchase Fund and General Acquisition Fund, 98.37
[1] Salamina, Kent’s housekeeper and romantic companion while living in Greenland, is understood as the model for this work, after which the dinnerware set is named.
[2] During the McCarthy era, Kent was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953 to clarify his political views and associations. Though he denied being a member of the Communist Party, his reputation plummeted; the subsequent blacklisting resulted in decreased sales, exhibitions, and overall popularity.

Object of the Week: Mask Okpesu Umuruma (Frighten Children)

If your social media feeds were anything like mine this past week, they were full of artful (and not-so-artful) selfies matched with portrait doppelgängers in museums around the world. Thanks to the Google Arts & Culture app, the public is now able to see their best selfies instantly paired with paintings in over 1,200 museum collections.

What fascinates me about the viral popularity of this app is its simplicity—that one’s photographic likeness with a historical subject can generate such universal entertainment. But what is it that we seek to learn about ourselves through this mediated experience? Or, perhaps this activity is less about self-realization than it is a performative gesture allowing us to—however momentarily—embody the identity of someone other than ourselves.

Though markedly different, this performative and participatory impulse lies at the heart of many masquerades that take place in African communities. Such events vary dramatically from village to village, but masquerades incorporate masks, costumes, sound, and performance to explore human nature, spirituality, and social relationships. This notion of masking and disguise allows performers to distance themselves from both player and audience, an escapism facilitated by activated personification. This Okpesu Umuruma mask by Nigerian artist Chukwu Okoro, with its asymmetrical and contorted features, is meant to frighten children—its very presence a symbol and cautionary tale of greed and self-interest. (I wonder what they would have to say about selfies . . . ) Worn during the Afikpo play known as Okumpka, the mask becomes just one of a large cast of characters that satirically expose the actions—both good and bad—of members in the Afikpo community.

No doubt the history of masquerade is a long one, with contemporary examples taking place on occasions such as Halloween, Día de Muertos, Purim, Mardi Gras—the list goes on. The Google Arts & Culture app, a by-product of the selfie age in which we currently live, underscores the degree to which self-interest drives much of our digital lives these days. In fact, I wonder if these activities, in which so many of us participate, point to a deeper desire for truly shared experiences such as masquerades and parades—activities which require an active and communal participation in person.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Mask Okpesu Umuruma (Frighten Children), 1960, Chukwu Okoro, Mgbom village, Afikpo, wood with raffia backing, pigment, 10 x 5 3/4 x 5 1/2 in., Gift of Simon Ottenberg, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2005.50 © Chukwu Okoro

Object of the Week: Veronica Smith, Phillip Hunter Jr., and Kent Carrington, at the City of St. Jude staging area, March 25th, 1965

The concepts contained in words like ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘democracy’ are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.

– James Baldwin, “The Crusade of Indignation,” The Nation, July 7, 1956

This black and white photograph, taken by photojournalist Dan Budnick in 1965, is one of a series that Budnick had hoped to publish in a Life magazine photo-essay. Taken during critical events of the civil rights movement, the photographic series captures such moments as the 1958 Youth March for Integrated Schools, the 1963 March on Washington, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech delivered that same day.

This image in particular depicts three young activists—Veronica Smith, Phillip Hunter, Jr., and Kent Carrington—holding the American flag while participating in the famous five-day march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Led by Dr. King, the march protested the discriminatory laws suppressing black voters’ rights in the South and would eventually lead to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act. Stoic, calm, and courageous, Smith, Hunter, and Carrington are engulfed in a sea of stars and stripes—symbols of the freedom and equality for which they were fighting. The flags, acting as a visual barrier separating them from their fellow marchers, can perhaps be read as a metaphor for the segregation these activists sought to end.

While the civil rights movement often conjures struggles faced in the past, Dr. King’s call for racial equity, social justice, and religious tolerance is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. Progress has no doubt been made since the 1960s, but it is also important to acknowledge that the fight against racism—in all its insidious and systemic forms—is not a past but current event. Many of us will celebrate Dr. King’s legacy by observing his birthday on Monday, January 15, but our individual efforts to achieve equal rights—for all marginalized communities—is an ongoing project that transcends a single day.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Veronica Smith, Phillip Hunter Jr., and Kent Carrington, at the City of St. Jude staging area, March 25th, 1965, 1965, Dan Budnik, Gelatin silver photograph, 14 x 11 in., Gift of Getty Images, 2000.43, © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Ostrich

Today—January 5—is National Bird Day. Established to raise awareness of the issues affecting avian populations around the world, National Bird Day brings public attention to the welfare of birds living in captivity, bird breeding mills, and other such topics.

In the spirit of this feathered holiday, we highlight an engraving by French printmaker Simon Charles Miger, titled Ostrich. Created at the turn of the 19th century, this print was published in La Menagerie du Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle—a scholarly work that surveyed and catalogued various animal species on display at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France.

The 1801 engraving depicts an ostrich, with its long limbs and feathered body, strutting across a landscape reminiscent of the bird’s native Africa. Rendered in profile, the bird occupies the majority of the composition, making clear Miger’s interest in foregrounding its anatomical likeness.

While La Menagerie indeed illustrates animals who were at the time living in captivity, its production points to important advances made during the Enlightenment, a time when European interest in the natural world grew significantly. Like other artist-naturalists John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson, Miger made important contributions to our understanding of the natural world, producing works that supported the then-burgeoning conservation movement.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Ostrich, 1801, Simon Charles Miger, engraving, 17 5/16 x 12 3/16 in., Gift of an anonymous donor, 70.55

Object of the Week: Nail Police

New Year’s Eve ushers in and allows for all sorts of behavior. For some, it might be a night to reflect on the past year while making resolutions for the next, but for others it is a social occasion during which one can celebrate freely, throwing caution—and social mores—to the wind. This work by John Wesley, titled Nail Police, seems to be a proponent of the latter.

At first the work appears relatively benign, with a cartoon-like image of a woman drying toenail polish—a standard beauty routine. Upon closer look, Nail Police reveals more erotic undertones, and raises further questions: Why are there three feet instead of two? Is the woman pictured even painting toes at all? Is the painting in fact an adult fantasy rendered ambiguous?

One of Wesley’s many strengths as an artist is his ability to create images that are at once explicit and enigmatic. And, like his highly stylized paintings, Wesley has defied easy categorization throughout his career. His flat, graphic figures and distinctive color palate of periwinkle blue and pale pink often align him with artists who share a Pop sensibility, although Wesley associates his uncanny, dreamlike compositions with Surrealism. However, his painting style, which bears little trace of the human hand, has also been espoused by many Minimalist artists, most notably Donald Judd.

Interested in our mass consumption of media, Wesley regularly begins his paintings by tracing images from publications such as newspapers and fashion magazines—dogs, birds, women, and cartoon characters—which are then converted into gouaches and, ultimately, acrylic paintings. This process allows certain characteristics to be reduced to their most basic elements. Here, this can be seen in the contours of the woman’s feet, or the treatment of her full lips and eyelashes.

Regardless of how you might read this image, the last night of the year is as good a time as any to paint the town—and maybe even your toenails—red. However you celebrate, Happy New Year!

Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Nail Police, 2002, John Wesley, Acrylic on canvas, 63 x 48 in. (160 x 121.9 cm), Gift of American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York and Hassam, Speicher, Betts and Symons Funds, 2004.90, © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Object of the Week: Wrapping cloth (furoshiki)

A riddle for you: what do you call a beautifully woven, dyed object that reveals itself while concealing others? A multi-purpose Japanese textile known as furoshiki, of course! With origins in the early 17th century, furoshiki is used today for a variety of purposes, ranging from utilitarian to purely aesthetic. (Hint: it also functions as great gift wrap . . . )

Dating as far back as the Edo period in Japan (1603–1868), furoshiki was first used to keep together one’s personal belongings while bathing in public bath houses. Since then, furoshiki has expanded to wrap and carry just about anything. This wrapping cloth in particular was created through a process of indigo dyeing that involves the application of paste as a resist. To make the fan and rope design, the artist would have painted the resist directly onto the fabric, which would in turn block the penetration of indigo dye into its cotton fibers. Before each submersion, the paste would be reapplied in order to achieve the subtle and varying shades of blue seen here.

In addition to being a work of art in its own right, furoshiki falls within a larger tradition of tsutsumi, the Japanese art of wrapping and packaging. Employing a number of different materials and techniques, tsutsumi was meant to protect, and often transport, gifts in a simple and elegant manner; traditionally, an artfully wrapped gift was meant to be contemplated before being opened, if opened at all.

Beginning with a simple square of cloth, furoshiki can become any number of utilitarian (and reusable!) objects with a simple pleat, twist, or knot: a purse, a lunchbox, a bottle carrier, gift wrap—you name it. For a small sampling of its possible permutations and folded formats, just take a look at the graphic below. Christmas is in four days, so plenty of time to become furoshiki masters!

Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Wrapping cloth (furoshiki), 1868-1912, Japanese, cotton, freehand paste-resist dyeing, 65 3/8 x 64 3/4 in., Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001.500.
Drug Jar

Object of the Week: Drug jar

The winter months bring with them a wide range of traditions to which we look forward: holidays, gift-giving, new resolutions, and, of course, the good ol’ winter cold. We each develop our own methods of combatting (or coping with) stubborn winter germs, and this time of year often has me thinking about the ways in which we administer medicine and think about health more broadly. The history of medicine is of course a long and complicated narrative, but it is a history that would not exist without important contributions from the Muslim world.1

Dating back to the 14th century, this Islamic drug jar points to a rich moment of cross-cultural exchange and advances in science and medicine—fields all but forgotten during Europe’s Middle Ages, and that were fortunately recovered by Islamic scholars. During the medieval period, Muslim physicians saw significant advances in public health, diagnosing such major diseases as smallpox and measles, and the creation of urban hospitals and sanitation systems.

Vessels like this drug jar would have held medicinal herbs, roots, syrups, pills, or aromatic waters, and the top would have been covered with parchment and tied with string. The concave jar mimics the curved shape of bamboo stems, a formal homage to the material traditionally used to store medicines in Indonesia, a country that first felt the presence of Islam as early as the 9th century.

The choice to retain the shape of Indonesia’s bamboo containers is an interesting one that would eventually make its way into the ceramic traditions of Moorish Spain and Italy—clear evidence that more than just medical knowledge was shared during this period of global trade and expansion. Certainly, this earthenware jar is a far cry from the Emergen-C packets and plastic-encased medicine we buy today. Its very form acts as a reminder of the Muslim world’s role in both modern science and ceramics, as well as how differently we package and distribute medicine today.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

1 For a great read on early Islamic medicine, and its relationship to the Western world, I recommend this article by Jonathan Lyons in Lapham’s Quarterly.
Image: Drug jar, 14th century, Islamic, earthenware with white slip and glaze, 12 x 4 3/4 in., girth: 23 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 60.44.