What is the connection between an ironing board and African American oppression?
“I change the way people see everyday objects the same way advertisers change the way we see the world.”
Willie Cole, a contemporary American sculptor, printer, and self-proclaimed “perceptual engineer” has made a career out of transforming the everyday object into the provocative. Cole’s focus is not solely on the object’s intended function, rather the history or narrative behind the individuals who used the object. Whether Cole uses steam irons, bicycles, shoes, or recycled water bottles, the viewer’s perception of a familiar object becomes entirely different and perhaps even enigmatic to their experience/modern existence. The mystery sparks intrigue and guides the viewer to reflection: what is the connection between an iron/ironing board and African American oppression?
You may not make an instant connection between a commercial ironing board and a slave ship, yet Cole successfully erects this symbolism. The four-by-eight-foot image originates from a diagram of a slave ship that Cole found in a childhood schoolbook. Stowage, Cole’s largest print to date, is a woodcut comprised of cut holes in oversized wooden planks, including the printing block and 12 different irons. Cole intended for each face of the irons, which appear to be mask-like, to represent a different tribe along the African coast that might have traveled in the ship itself. The central plank, or ironing board, represents the ship itself. As Asheville Art Museum Learning & Engagement Director Kristi McMillan notes in her assertion of Stowage, irons and ironing boards were important tools for domestic workers before and after Emancipation.
Most notably, Stowage evokes a sense of awareness that domestic objects may have sensitive cultural significance.
—Contributed by Devon Fero, Communications & External Affairs Assistant