"The closest I've been to Africa is Harlem," admits Willie Cole, but the New Jersey born and bred artist mines his African heritage to recast Western castoffs--old irons, ironing boards, shoes, hairdryers, doors--into powerful sculptures loaded with myth and fact. These reached New York galleries by the early `90s. Cole is one of ten artists with installations in "Performance Anxiety" at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art this spring, Apr. 19-July 13, 1997. His recent projects have included producing a print, not his first but his most ambitious, using a hand-made 50 x 95 in. plywood frame with cutouts for 12 iron bases and a metal ironing board. The table-size block was inked by hand in black and printed on Kozo-shi paper by Maurice Sánchez and James Miller at Derrière L'Etoile Studios in New York. Published by Alexander and Bonin in an edition of 14 with four proofs and priced at $4,000, Stowage can be seen at Alexander and Bonin, 59 Wooster Street, New York. Call (212) 925-2343 for hours and information. Cole answers questions in his Newark studio.
Q. Did Alexander and Bonin commission this print?
A. No. I just had the need to do it and thought I would print it myself. I couldn't find paper that large, so I called Carolyn Alexander because she knows prints, and she decided to bring in Maurice.
Q. Are you comfortable working with professional printers?
A. Actually, no. When I did screenprints a few years ago at the Rutgers Center for Innovative Printmaking, I sort of witnessed the whole thing. With Maurice, at least I made the plate myself so I feel involved. The tough part for me is their suggestions, because my nature allows me to consider anything that comes my way and sometimes that gives me too many options. Often I don't like a lot of choices. I'd rather have one soap on the shelf.
Q. I thought your blackboards, with different words whose forst letters spell "Art" or "America," were about choice.
A. To me, I'm not giving variety. I'm giving one word, broken down into parts.
Q. And an iron is your most broken-down image?
A. Most developed. When I first moved into this loft 17 years ago, I had maybe 15 or 20 irons, because being the only male in the family through three generations, I was the guy who fixed everything. But I was a painter then, coming off formalism, and I threw those irons away. The iron and scorch pieces started five or six years later, with my seeing an iron on the street for many days and noticing it had a face on it that looked like a West African mask, a Dan. I brought it here and photographed it and put the picture on the wall. And for about a year I was always finding irons. It was almost like that first iron had made me an iron savior. Something in my awareness opened up to the suffering of irons. Also being in this space in Newark. This used to be a sweatshop.
Q. And women worked with irons as domestics.
A. Including my great-grandmother, my grandmother, even my mother as a teenager.
Q. Why did you grow up with so many women?
A. My grandmother divorced. My parents separated when I was 12. I have a sister, and my cousins, who lived with us, were girls. My great-grandfather was the male image in my life. He died maybe three years ago. He was 98 and married five times.
Q. Have you ever married?
A. Never legally, but I've had some relationships that were marriage to me. I have a son who is 18 and in college. And now I'm in a relationship where I have a two-year-old daughter.
Q. Why is the board in the print horizontal?
A. When the ironing board is horizontal, it represents a ship. When it's vertical, it's a shield. And the iron, when the point is up, represents a house, and when the point is down, a face.
Q. And patterns of scarification.
Q. Is the ship a slave ship?
A. Usually, but when I made those big iron sculptures this fall, I thought about Haitian refugees crossing the water to the U.S. When we go back into the studio, you'll see I'm working on another kind of print--it's the scorched image, but blown up to five or six feet, like the big iron sculptures. Most of the iron pieces are from a stream of consciousness, from approaching the objects almost with no thoughts, letting them talk to me and creating a dialogue that could go on for the rest of my life. Sometimes I try to turn it off and work with other materials, and then it happens with those materials, too. The print I'm doing with Maurice is based on a diagram of a slave ship from a book I had in childhood, and since '85 I've been seeing it as an ironing board. I'm using a woodblock because wood represents water to me. Materials have their own magic.
Q. Why are you using so many different irons?
A. Any slave ship contained people from different nations or tribes. The irons themselves represent different tribes. The metaphor is Tribe of Silex, Tribe of G.E.--actually, it's the Fulani, Yoruba, West African tribes. In that big slave-ship complex, those little squares of the ironing board are where the different tribes were housed. The ship would come up along the coast, gathering people.
Q. In another century, Hutu and Tutsi wouldn't be in refugee camps, but sold to the same slave ship?
A. By each other, probably. The red lines in the early proofs--arrows, really--make the work more cartographic, more like a graphic chart where symbols magnify the area of the main chart. My major in school was graphic design. I'm choosing colors I know are strong.
Q. People sometimes have found your work amusing. Not this.
A. People find things funny that are new, uncomfortable. Laughter can relieve tension. Now they are becoming familiar with this imagery, they go into it a little deeper, as I do, but if they want to laugh, that's fine. It's just the surprise. Even with me, when I saw Man Ray's iron at MoMA, I couldn't believe he didn't think of transforming an iron into African art.
Q. You don't think bringing slavery so directly into your art is breaking a taboo?
A. I don't think I brought it in. It's what is there. I bring it out. The objects have a memory and history of their own. So if you have a slave, or just a domestic worker, people working for little money, their objects have a memory of that experience. I'm dealing with what goes into making an African-American myth, but slavery still exists. The jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk calls it volunteer slavery. We elect to become servants to a certain system or company or product. We don't open ourselves to the total choices of freedom. We look at a limited palette and choose from that.
Q. So this elegant, gorgeous print is political?
A. I don't separate things that way. Every action is political and spiritual as well as physical, of the moment. I make art as a spiritual action, and because of the times I live in--or maybe the way I interpret it conversationally--it may appear to be political. But initially it's just spiritual, a buildup of energy. I want to get past language to the energy. These symbols have been recognized by a lot of people. It looks like a slave ship. It looks like a mask, whether it's African, Native American, Tibetan. A triangle will always make a face, and people recognize that. I think this print will definitely force the idea of these objects as symbols in a highly graphic form. The patterns in an ironing board are not normally seen as little cubbies. People will ponder. And the title--Stowage--will push them in a direction.
Q. You don't mind pushing people to understand your work?
A. Not at all.
JACQUELINE BRODY is the former editor and publisher of Print Collector's Newsletter. Cole's print Stowage is presently on view at Alexander and Bonin in an exhibition of works that reference the human figure (to Mar. 22, 1997).