Delia’s “Domestic Shield” & connections to Willie Cole

After viewing Willie Cole’s artwork and discussing it this past week, I am most interested in looking at how the elements of domestic housework and strength/weaponry are connected in his work. Specifically, I believe Cole is making direct ties between the domestic housework historically done by women–in this case, Black women of the American South–and warrior-like qualities.

The “Beauties” prints of ironing boards are a clear example of this connection, as an inanimate object with the purpose of pressing & refreshing clean clothes is now presented as a dark, battered figure. The high contrast of black and white emphasizes the scars and marks on the ironing boards from the flattening process, making them appear to have gone through significant wear and tear. This idea connects to the women who worked on the same ironing boards in the past–Cole states that the boards are stand-ins for bodies, so we can imagine the figures of women in place of the boards, similarly worn down and toughened from strenuous work.

Three of Willie Cole's "Beauties" prints--flattened ironing boards with scratches and scrapes , printed in black and white.
Three of Willie Cole’s “Beauties” prints

Another collection of Cole’s art that present this connection are the “Domestic Shields.” These ironing boards have decorative patterns of iron prints on them in various neutral shades of brown/black. I found many similarities between the geometric patterns & color schemes of these Domestic Shields with the traditional Zulu shields, as seen in the comparison below.

Tying in Hurston’s short story “Sweat,” I think the “Domestic Shields” made from ironing boards and iron prints are interesting in conversation with Delia, who is characterized by both her constant work washing clothes as well as her perseverance in difficult situations. While Delia is belittled for doing domestic work every day, including the Sabbath, she is able to provide for herself independently because of the money she earns. Also, Delia only notices the snake because she is about to begin washing clothes on a Sunday night–she gets the last match from the box in order to get work done at night, and sees the snake once she opens her hamper. Her hardworking and clever spirit, in turn, functions the same as the above shield would in a battle.

On the contrary, Sykes is not so lucky when attacked by the snake. I would be interested to hear more thoughts or micro evidence about what Hurston is trying to say about men and women in this story, and how it could connect to the artwork of the ironing boards!!!

4 thoughts on “Delia’s “Domestic Shield” & connections to Willie Cole

  1. I think the connection between women’s hard work and warrior- like qualities is really interesting. Carter also notes Delia’s hard work and perseverance in her article about sweat, arguing that it makes Delia Christ-like. She also notes that Black women at the time didn’t have many options besides hard work, writing “Their choices are to be despicable temptresses (like Bertha) or good women who work like mules. Delia’s choice is obvious. Both slave-like and Christ-like, she can only endure” (608). Tying this back to Cole’s art and your observations about the shields, I think it’s interesting that there seems to be two different ways of viewing Black women’s work at this time. There’s the warrior-like qualities and the ironing board shields where hard work and perseverance help women like Delia in the end and are somewhat a source of pride, and then there’s the idea of work that requires slave-like endurance and Cole’s “Beauties” prints that look a lot like slave ships.

  2. I love the idea of Willie Cole regarding the women throughout his life as warriors. It is obvious that he has a ton of respect and admiration for them so it makes sense that he would name their shields after them. In the story I think Delia was able to use her money as a shield from Sykes. Which directly connects to this artwork because she earned it all washing clothes.

  3. Carly, I thought your comparison of Delia’s labour and spirit to a shield was very apt. It was also very interesting to see the comparisons to the Zulu shield. Many artists, like Picasso, have appropriated African motifs in their work, but unfortunately, this has often portrayed those elements irrespective and disrespectfully of their original meaning. Cole’s work now seems even more significant to me, as he has taken it upon himself to repair the misappropriation of African symbolism.

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