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Courtesy Walker Art Center
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Title
Stowage
Artist
Willie Cole
Date
1997
Dimensions
sheet 56 × 104 inches
Materials
relief print on paper
Location
Not on view

Object Details

Type
Prints (Edition Prints/Proofs)
Accession Number
1998.27
Edition
3/16
Inscriptions
in pencil front BR “Willie Cole”; in pencil front BL “3/16” BC “Stowage”
Physical Description
a large ironing board surrounded by images of the faces of irons
Printer
Derriere L'Etoile
Credit Line
McKnight Acquisition Fund, 1998

curriculum resource Willie Cole, Stowage (1997) Walker Art Center, 2002

“I think that when one culture is dominated by another culture, the energy or powers or gods of the previous culture hide in the vehicles of the new cultures… . I think the spirit of Shango (Yoruba god of thunder and lightning) is a force hidden in the iron because of the fire, and the power of Ogun–his element is iron–is also hidden in these metal objects.” –Willie Cole

While Willie Cole was growing up in New Jersey, his grandmother and great-grandmother worked as housekeepers and they often asked him to fix their irons. When he moved into his first artist studio, he brought 15 broken irons with him. For Cole, this common household appliance has a number of connotations: domestic servitude, African rituals of scarification, and an African heritage of “branding”–identifying particular tribes by way of shields or masks. To make the print Stowage, he grouped several different makes of irons (Silex, General Electric, Sunbeam) around an ironing board that is meant to represent a slave ship. The marks of the various irons evoke members of different African tribes who may have been brought to America aboard such a vessel.

Text for Willie Cole, Stowage (1997), from the curriculum guide So, Why Is This Art?, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2002.

Copyright 2002 Walker Art Center

online content Rights: Malcolm X Walker Art Center, 2003

Willie Cole refers to this speech by Malcolm X, known as “The House Negro and the Field Negro,” as a source of inspiration for Stowage: “Even though I cite the speech as inspiration, it was primarily my own musing about its title that led me to imagine the ironing-board shield as part of the house Negro’s arsenal during a revolt.”

[During slavery] There were two kinds of Negroes. There was that old house Negro and the field Negro. And the house Negro always looked out for his master. When the field Negroes got too much out of line, he held them back in check. He put them back on the plantation.

The house Negro could afford to do that because he lived better than the field Negro. He ate better, he dressed better, and he lived in a better house. He lived right up next to his master–in the attic or the basement. He ate the same food as his master and wore his same clothes. And he could talk just like his master–good diction. And he loved his master more than his master loved himself. That’s why he didn’t want his master to get hurt.

If the master got hurt he’d say: “What’s the matter, boss–we sick?” When the master’s house caught afire, he’d try and put out the fire. He didn’t want his master’s house burnt. He never wanted his master’s property threatened. And he was more defensive of it than his master was. That was the house Negro.

But then you had some field Negroes, who lived in huts, had nothing to lose. They wore the worst kind of clothes. They ate the worst food. And they caught hell. Oh yes, they did. If the master got sick, they’d pray that the master’d die. If the master’s house caught afire, they’d pray for a strong wind to come along. This was the difference between the two.

And today you still have house Negroes and field Negroes.

I’m a field Negro. If I can’t live in the house as a human being, I’m praying for a wind to come along. If the master won’t treat me right and he’s sick, I’ll tell the doctor to go in the other direction. But if all of us are going to live as human beings, then I’m for a society of human beings that can practice brotherhood.

–Malcolm X, Selma, Alabama, February 4, 1965

Rights: Malcolm X, from the website Global Positioning: Exploring Contemporary World Art, 2003.

Copyright 2003 Walker Art Center

online content Metaphor: Iron Walker Art Center, 2003

“I think that when one culture is dominated by another culture, the energy or powers or gods of the previous culture hide in the vehicles of the new cultures… . I think the spirit of Shango [the Yoruba god of thunder and lightning] is a force hidden in the iron because of the fire, and the power of Ogun–his element is iron–is also hidden in these metal objects.”
–Willie Cole

In parts of West Africa, the god Shango is noted for his magical powers and was feared because when he spoke, fire came out of his mouth. It is said that Shango worshippers could become possessed and eat fire, carry a pot of hot coals on their heads, or put their hands into live coals without apparent harm.

In Stowage the central image of an ironing board, recalling the shape of a slave ship, is surrounded by impressions of numerous irons. These marks, each a separate pattern, evoke different tribes in Africa. In all of his works, Cole transforms objects of contemporary consumer society by giving them a second life after they are discarded. He blends aspects of African culture with these mass-produced objects, searching for their latent spiritual and symbolic power.

Metaphor: Iron, from the website Global Positioning: Exploring Contemporary World Art, 2003.

Copyright 2003 Walker Art Center

online content Museum: Background Information Walker Art Center, 2003

Willie Cole was born in Sommerville, New Jersey, in 1955. After studying art in Boston and New York City, he returned to New Jersey, where he continues to live and work today. When he was a child, both his grandmother and great-grandmother worked as housekeepers and often brought their irons home for him to fix. When he moved into his first studio in 1980, he had at least 15 broken irons and began to incorporate them into his work. This object, which most people would consider a simple domestic tool, is a potent symbol for Cole as an African-American artist. For him, the iron brings to mind domestic servitude, African rituals of scarification (the making of superficial scratches or incisions in the skin), and an African heritage of “branding,” in which tribes are identified by shields or masks.

Cole has found many ways to use the household iron in his work. He makes sculpture by rearranging disassembled parts into forms that recall traditional African sculpture. In other works, he uses the heat of the iron to scorch a surface, allowing its shape and the pattern of steam holes to create decorative forms. In the process, the artist realized that each type of iron left its own unique imprint. The large woodcut Stowage borrows from this technique, as Cole employs real objects to make the print, although ink is used instead of heat.

Willie Cole, Stowage (1997), from the website Global Positioning: Exploring Contemporary World Art, 2003.

Copyright 2003 Walker Art Center

artist statement Artist: Willie Cole Willie Cole, 2001

“When I was in high school in the ‘60s, black awareness was very big in the cities, including Newark, where I lived. There were a lot of cultural centers in Newark focusing on black culture. As a result of that environment, in high-school art class we began to study African art, sculpture, and dance. That continued when I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York, and led me to the study of Yoruba culture. Also, my best friend in the '80s was an art dealer who sold African art. The environment that developed in black communities across America after the '60s included African religion. It was not uncommon to experience African culture in a direct way by attending African religious ceremonies. It has affected my work in that my whole approach to sculpture comes from my being rather than my education.”

“In 1989, I began to think that people worshiped objects. If you see a picture or an advertisement of something you want, then you begin to desire it. And you desire it so much that when you obtain it, your desire turns to worship. In other cultures, their use of the object and their dependence on it is a ritual action and is evidence of their worship.”
–Willie Cole, 2001

Willie Cole on Stowage (1997), from the website Global Positioning: Exploring Contemporary World Art, 2003.

Copyright 2003 Walker Art Center