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On the Cover: Pin-Up Girl Angela Ryan Mod Style: Ready, Steady, Go! Photography: Nicholas Routzen

Kara Walker Art Critique by Solange James

Art Critique: Kara Walker

On January 24th 2008, I had the experience of attending the Kara Walker exhibit at the Whitney Museum here in New York City.  I have to admit, I am not an ardent fan of modern American art.  I would not go as far as to say that I detest the genre but I am better able to appreciate the Metropolitan Museum, and I often spend hours there, pouring over Tibetan Arms and Armor, Grecian Amphorae, Gothic triptychs, European Renaissance paintings and the Christian and Islamic Art of Eastern Africa.

Multimedia Gallery
Kara Walker Multimedia Art Gallery
Kara Walker Artwork »

The journey that led me to the Whitney started several months ago.  After screening the Jennifer Dworkin documentary film “Love and Diane” in one of my visual communication courses, and becoming incensed over the clichéd, one dimensional portrayal of an inner city New York family, I was inspired to explore the topic of what I believed, was a subliminal inclination for the mainstream culture and media to be seemingly comfortable in portraying African Americans, particularly women, according to an almost scripted set of stereotypes and roles.  Some of these include the obese, asexual mammy, the welfare queen and her troves of tax suckling children, the tragic mulatto, the emasculating, finger snapping sapphire, and the hyper sexed jezebel.

I presented my idea to my professor, who, coincidentally, has written several books and conducted significant historical research as to the ethical implications associated with the representations of the ethnographic other.  She found my critique of the film to be valid, and suggested that as an additional resource guide, I should visit the Kara Walker exhibit, as many of the themes that produced angst in me were touched upon and explored.  She described the imagery as profound, and strongly suggested that I see it while it was here in New York City.

Profoundly obscene.

The signs plastered around the lobby warning patrons as to the graphic nature of the exhibit definitely clued me in to the fact that I was about to engage in one of the most insane emotional roller coaster rides of a lifetime.

The thematic inspiration for the entire show is a compilation of slave narratives, historical novels and images of the antebellum South which Ms Walker constructs into a repertoire of narratives which help to expose the living roots of racial and gender bias.  Using black silhouettes, which is meant to mimic the reductiveness of a stereotype, the cut pieces are mounted directly onto the stark white gallery walls.  As you step off the elevators onto the third floor, you are immediately confronted with a massive tableau entitled “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred Between the Thighs Of One Young Negress And Her Heart” The title of this narrative, as with many of her other works, is a sarcastic reference to the ‘romantic’ historical novels such as Gone With the Wind and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  The 50 ft long piece consists of larger than life-sized black cut paper silhouettes, which are installed as a panoramic mural.  An innocent Southern belle demurely leans in for a kiss from her gallant gentleman, creating the illusion of the genteel pre Civil war romance novel.  However, one cannot forget that slavery, and its horrors were inextricably intertwined with this era.  The image of the Southern belle and her piety is contrasted with the silhouette of a young black man being hoisted aloft by his ballooning genitalia.  In the center, a young girl fellates her master’s son, and to the far right, a woman lifts her legs and excretes already dead babies as mindlessly as if she were defecating.  The piece is a stark revelation of the dark corners of America, the antebellum South, the role of women – both Black and White, slavery, and its role in the construction of American identity.  However, even though Ms Walker references the past, she does not live solely in it.  It is her contention that these historical representations still inform modern ideas as to gender and racial roles.

Kara Walker Art Critique by Solange JamesHer images have the power to inflict such pain on viewers – black and white, male and female alike, as she skillfully manipulates taboos and codes of conduct.  She pushes all of our buttons.  Nothing is sacred, and we are bombarded with images that are grotesquely racist and sexually profane.  Many of the pieces are representative of the sadomasochistic sickness in the master-slave relationship, and the power disparity between masculinity and femininity.  The show is titled “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love…” which is a brilliantly complex expression as to the endless conundrum and the conflicting feelings involved and created from these subverted relationships.

What I enjoy most about Walker’s pieces is that she does not seek to go down the tried-and-true route of “we are oppressed” and “you are the guilty” but rather, her pieces speak to the fact that everyone can be implicated in this grand mess known as American history.

In her work titled “The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva In Heaven” reference is being made to the 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  This book is of significant historical importance, and it has been suggested (a myth no doubt) that the images of slavery depicted in this book instigated the Civil War.  Union soldiers supposedly kept copies of this book in their knapsacks to remind them of the cause for which they fought.  The character, Uncle Tom, the suffering slave, was touted as a model of great Christian virtue.  However, his portrayal as childlike and submissive, becomes somewhat problematic, and is an indicator as to the author’s ingrained and deeply internalized prejudices.  As such, in Walker’s retelling of this novel, Uncle Tom is seen on the far right giving birth to a child while lifting his arms in prayer.  Young Eva, who dies in the novel to redeem the sins of slavery, lifts an axe over the head of a baby.  Walker deliberately tarnishes the images of both in an attempt to mutilate the constructed national history narrative.

Walker’s imagery has generated intense debate.  In 1997, the year she was awarded the Mac Arthur Foundation genius fellowship, an older generation of African American artists began a campaign in which they asked colleagues to boycott the negative images that she produced.  Critics claimed that Walker’s images were ‘dirty’ ‘pornographic’ ‘sexist’ and ‘pandering to racism’  Many of these artists claimed that instead of providing empowering images of Blacks, the artist Ms Walker decided that it would be easy to profit by supplying the racist images to whites, which they secretly enjoyed seeing.

The series of 66 watercolor and graphite drawings titled “Do You like Crème in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk” is Walker’s response to the controversy.  In one of her graphite on paper images she writes:

Kara Walker Art Critique by Solange JamesWhat You Want…Negative Images of White people, positive Images of Blacks…”
At the bottom of the page she quips “for balance

Kara Walker’s exhibition was a breath of fresh air – if it could be described as such.  I was disgusted, embarrassed, and yet strangely intrigued, which illustrates the intensely paradoxical nature of her work and the issues that she seeks to bring attention to.  She has no interest in creating a redemptive narrative for Blacks or Women.  She is interested rather, in the continuity of conflict, for, as we know, nothing ever stands still.  The fact that I found the fetishized images to be both repulsive and titillating, speaks volumes to her power as an artist.  Whether we like it or not, Ms Walker shows us that we all, whether Black, White, Korean, Irish, Jewish, Male or Female, define ourselves based on some former master-slave dialectic, which we then in turn use to define ourselves.  What protesting artists claim to be positive and empowering images of Blacks and Women, are in fact already contaminated mediums, as our consciousness is defined in opposition to an historical movement – whether that be slavery, ethnic segregation or woman’s suffrage.

By deciding to work with these false shadows (silhouette images) Walker engages the subconscious of the Master’s culture and the ambivalent slave culture (think “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love) and destroys the notion of humiliation of Blackness and Negritude as entertainment.  She renders what was already false, worthless.

The purpose of art is to make one think and to induce dialogue.  A visit to this exhibit will definitely do so.  Unfortunately, her exhibit at the Whitney ends on February 3rd 2008, but I encourage all to seek her out online.  She resides in New York City, and is on the faculty of the Master’s of Fine Arts Program at Colombia University.  Whether you are critical of the installation or you can appreciate her sheer brilliance, you will no doubt be moved to discuss how much you hate or love her images, and what they represent to you.  While most will find the imagery grotesque, she achieves her goals of having the viewer confront a part of their subconscious that is shameful and ugly.  Her strength as an artist is her understanding of how immaterial things (subconscious) can manifest themselves in the physical form, and continue to create bondage – for all.

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