In his assemblage, installation, and wall works, Willie Cole (born 1955) transforms domestic objects such as hair dryers, bicycle parts, irons, and lawn jockeys into powerful works embedded with references to the African American experience and inspired by West African religion, mythology, and culture. The appropriation of discarded mass-produced American products, objects that have their own history from earlier handling and use, becomes the raw material of Cole’s creations. Drawing on his personal experience and collective cultural histories, his work is a playful, inquisitive, and intelligent approach to synthesizing the physical and spiritual worlds.
The steam iron is the single most important icon in Cole’s visual vocabulary. Within America’s post–Civil War culture, the iron became indicative of the house servant role of women of color and emblematic of domesticity. Iron is also a metal associated with industry and mass production. In West Africa, the iron takes on male rather than female associations. In the Yoruba culture, for example, Ogun, the god of iron and war, is the patron deity representing male power, weapons, and fertility. He serves all who use metal in their occupations, such as blacksmiths and warriors. Cole’s whimsical approach to the iron as a symbol and object has resulted in a litany of creative works, both sculptural and two-dimensional, and exemplified in this exhibition in such works as Chewa 600 (1997), Perm-Press (hybrid) (1999), Branded Irons (2000), and Naturally Smooth (2002).
Using the iron as a mark-making tool, Cole has used the steam iron to imprint or “scorch” canvases or wood in works such as Lost Soles (1998) to create patterns reminiscent of Adinkra cloth found in Ghana. There, it is the men who imprint cloth with carved stamps of varying symbols, each with a specific meaning. The orientation of the iron is also important to Cole. Point up, the image is a shield; point down, it becomes a mask.
In the Bambara culture of West Africa, the antelope holds special significance as a mystical animal important in agricultural festivities. It is represented by tji wara (which means “working animal”) and is important to increasing the fertility of the fields for a bountiful harvest. Cole’s hybrids of bicycle parts are poetic and lyrical manifestations of both male and female tji wara (the female form is always presented in association with a child).
One of several installations that Cole has created is To Get to the Other Side (2001), a large floor-mounted chess board with game pieces comprised of embellished and transformed lawn jockeys. A powerful work, To Get to the Other Side comments on the historical origins of the Jockey Boy statue as a Revolutionary War memorial figure while simultaneously referring to Cole’s belief that it is a contemporary stand-in for the Yoruba god Elegba. Embellished with senses of hidden power, or ashe, each of Cole’s jockeys becomes a unique fetishistic experience. “In tribal art mystery and secrecy become visual signifiers and unleash magical and spiritual speculation in the minds of its viewers,” says Cole. “That’s ashe . . . and that’s getting to the other side.”
Born in New Jersey, Willie Cole attended the Boston University School of Fine Arts and received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York. His work is in numerous public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Director & Chief Curator,
University of Wyoming Art Museum