Work of the Week – Stowage by Willie Cole

Monday, April 4, 2016

by Parker Louise Bobbitt


This week’s Work of the Week is Stowage by Willie Cole.

“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” philosopher George Santayana once said. There are certain events in history where repetition should be avoided. In Stowage, artist Willie Cole explores this idea, analyzing the continuance of oppression in American society. 

Willie Cole’s Stowage is a monumental woodcut print that utilizes steam irons to reference historical African-American imagery. Spanning 49 by 95 inches, this work dominates the space and commands the viewer’s attention. Upon further exploration, the complex construction of interconnecting parts in Stowage becomes apparent. Five wood panels, twelve irons, and an ironing board were incorporated into this work. The repetition of irons suggests significance in this mundane object.

Stowage is a powerfully spiritual and personal work that explores consumer culture, U.S. history and Cole’s African-American heritage. An intricately layered metaphor is created through the exceptional intelligence and skill demonstrated in this work.  

Willie Cole was born in Somerville, NJ and has continued to live in New Jersey throughout the majority of his life. Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, Cole studied African art, sculpture and dance throughout high school. He earned his BFA at Boston University School of Fine Arts then continued his studies at the Arts Students League of New York from 1976-79. Often, Cole’s grandmother and great-grandmother who worked as housekeepers asked him to repair their broken irons. Cole brought 15 of these irons to his studio and began to utilize them in his work as seen in Stowage.

Through repeating images of irons, Willie Cole’s non-consumerist views are presented. Additionally, stating that Stowage references a Brookes slave ship diagram, Cole provides us with insight to the deeper metaphor within this work. Considering his advocacy for racial equality, this famous illustration of an overly crowded slave ship interpreted through irons and an ironing board alludes to the branding of slaves, iron chains, as well as the work of domestic servants. Cole seems to suggest that the same consumerist qualities in society that gave rise to the African slave trade harm African-Americans today through the perpetuation of wealth inequality.

Stowage is a work permeated with metaphors. Cole makes powerful statements in this work, questioning whether or not we are, to some degree, repeating heinous aspects of American history. In Stowage, Cole’s exploration of these historical patterns turns our attention to the future. How can we continue to progress? Learning about and remembering our history equips us to recognize past wrongs, identify the faults in modern society, and guide us in a better direction for the future.

Artwork above: Willie Cole, Stowage, 1997, Woodcut, 49.13 x 95 inches. 2006 Collectors’ Circle Purchase with additional funds provided by Ray Griffin & Thom Robinson, Phillip Broughton & David Smith, Nat & Anne Burkhardt, Randy Shull & Hedy Fischer, Joen Goodman and Susan Turner. Permanent Collection. 2006.27.65.