not but nothing other: African-American Portrayals, 1930s to Today

Willie Cole (born 1955)
Eva Mae, from "Beauties," 2012

The ironing board is a tool of domestic labor, an instrument in the daily work of maintenance that sustains families and households. For years, much of that work was undertaken by women of color on behalf of wealthy Whites, part of the pernicious legacy of enslavement that relegated many African Americans to jobs that serviced the needs of their White employers. Growing up in Newark in the 1950s and ‘60s, Willie Cole’s grandmother and great-grandmother were both housekeepers and he conceived of this series of prints, collectively known as the “Beauties,” as a memorial to Black women’s labor and suffering as domestics. Each work bears a woman’s name drawn from his extended family. Eva Mae was that of his great-grandmother. “All her life she worked for this doctor and his family ironing their clothes,” he recalls.

Cole made this print by taking an old metal ironing board and flattening it so it could be run through the printing press. The resultant form retains the board’s characteristic shape, which becomes deeply resonant, at once the plan of a slave ship and the outline of a shield, a symbol of oppression and of resistance.

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