Categorized | Reviews

Kara Walker @ Crocker Art Museum

Untitled (Scene #5) from Emancipation Approximation portfolio), 1999–2000, Screenprint on paper, 44 x 34"
Few things in this country ignite a firestorm quicker than discussions of race, and in that realm Kara Walker is one the art world's most provocative figures.  Her now-familiar silhouettes of black people – deployed in drawings, lithographs, etchings, wall works, paintings and film animations — depict some of the most extreme aspects of the African-American experience.  Since she arrived on the scene in the mid-'90s, her work has, most notably, come to represent how we unconsciously internalize racial stereotypes. Think what you want about the qualities that make for fair-mindedness. Walker's art suggests a different reality than the one most of us think we inhabit.  Abolition, civil rights and the election of a black president supposedly changed everything.  But one key measure — the exponentially higher rate at which blacks are imprisoned relative to the rest of the population — suggests that almost nothing has changed. Prisons have become the new plantations.   
That may be one reason why slavery and the Civil War continue to fuel Walker’s art.  Here, they provide the literal backdrop for Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power.  Its arrival at the Crocker from the Jordan D. Schnitzer Family Foundation comes at a propitious cultural moment.  Over the past two years we’ve witnessed a stream of films about America’s tortured racial past.  It includes The Help, Lincoln, Django Unchained, 42, The Butler, Fruitvale Station and, most recently, 12 Years a Slave, the true story of a free black man who, in 1841, was kidnapped in New York and sold into servitude in Louisiana.  The debut of the latter coincided with the opening of this exhibition and with the first-ever retrospective of Carrie Mae Weems, at Stanford’s Cantor Art Center through January 5.  Oh, and did I mention that Whoopie Goldberg just debuted a documentary about the gay, black female comedian Moms Mabley?  
This magnificently presented show, curated by the Crocker's Diana Daniels, approaches this legacy with works on paper, a wall installation, a film and silhouettes made of laser-cut steel.  Each tackles the subject from a slightly different angle, but all speak in unison about the “Lost Cause” and its repercussions. The hardest hitting come from a series called The Emancipation Approximation (1999-2000).   A good portion of it repurposes the Greek myth of Leda and the swan in which God, in the form of Zeus, seduces and impregnates Leda.  Renaissance paintings typically show Leda in a
L to R: The Emancipation Approximation (Scene # 26); Detail from The Emancipation Approximation (Scene #2); both 1999-2000, 44 x 34" 
state of rapture.  Walker’s silhouettes do the opposite: Leda, in the role a female slave, is forced by the swan to perform sex acts in a variety of anatomically challenging ways in which consent and pleasure are not part of the exchange. Other pictures in the series, installed along the sweeping curve of a gallery wall, show scenes of subjugation in which masters, male and female, lord it over slaves.  Fictional though they may be, they point to a central fact of black life in the Reconstruction period: that free status didn’t confer freedom or anything close to it.  The notorious Black Codes, passed at the end of the war in many southern states, reinstated slavery in all but name by applying restrictive rules to property ownership, travel and labor, often under the guise of vagrancy statutes so elastic they could be leveled to convict a black person of virtually anything.  In this regard, two drawings from this series stand in memory.  One depicts a black woman being crushed beneath the bellowing hoop skirt of a white belle; the other shows a woman leaning against a chopping block.  Below it lay ten black skulls.  These works remind us that Lincoln’s original goal wasn’t to abolish slavery; it was to preserve the union, and in Walker’s art we see evidence of that struggle in narratives that resist interpretation. 
What, for example, are we to make of the tuxedo-wearing black man, who, while carrying an infant in a satchel 

The Emancipation Anticipation (Scene # 11), 1999-2000, screen print on paper 44 x 34"

tosses a coin in the air while displaying a look of smug satisfaction?  Has he purchased a black infant or sold one?  And what of the picture in which a black boy threatens a black infant with sharp objects while an adult (also black) applauds?  Pictures like these break down the familiar opposition between masters and slaves, suggesting that the victims of this system may have also routinely victimized each other.  The Keys to the Coop, one of Walker's signature images, shows a running girl tearing the head off a (presumably stolen) chicken while twirling a key ring.  Racist caricature or jailbreak?  In Walker’s hands it could be both.  Efforts like this place Walker squarely in a tradition of black rebellion that first took shape in the ‘20s with the Harlem Renaissance, and then picked up speed in years following WWII when negative stereotypes were upended and reclaimed by black artists. One example that springs to mind is Charlie Parker, the Bebop saxophonist who is the subject of two new biographies.  He took the nickname Yardbird (later amended to Bird) in reference to his own gustatory preferences.  Likewise, Herbie Hancock, during the civil rights era, wrote a funky tune called Watermelon Man that became a hit in 1962.  He, too, knew well what he was doing, as did a prior (and subsequent) generation of jazz, soul and R&B musicians who embraced themes and titles that explicitly referenced blackness and black culture.  The trend reached something of a peak in 1986 when the hip-hop group N.W.A. appropriated the ‘N’ word and turned into a weapon against those who would use it against them. Walker, like her closest counterparts, Carrie Mae Weems and Adrian Piper, does something similar, albeit in a less confrontational manner.   

The Keys to the Coop, 1997, Linocut on paper, 46 x 60.5"

Her remake of the lavishly subtitled Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War: Contemporary Accounts and Illustrations from the Greatest Magazine of the Time attempts to insert into history, the presence of those who, for the most part, were purged from it.  Published in 1866, the original contains 836 large-scale pages – the vast majority of which contain no visual reference to slavery or to persons of color, the cause over which that war was supposedly fought.   The anthology’s editors described their aims: “We have undertaken to write the History of the Great Conspiracy which finally culminated in the Great Rebellion of the United States. Our task was commenced during the agony of the great struggle, when no man could foretell its issue. We purposed at the outset to narrate events just as they occurred; to speak of living men as impartially as though they were dead; to praise no man unduly because he strove for the right, to malign no man because he strove for the wrong; to anticipate, as far as we might, the sure verdict of after ages upon events."

Walker, by feigning the same impartiality, savages their ambitions.  She does it by superimposing her elegant, precisely cut silhouettes over enlarged prints of the original woodcuts, without making any attempt to re-write history or to suggest events that may have actually occurred.  For the most part the figures or faces appear to be passive onlookers or bit players, peripheral to scenes depicted in the originals.  At other times they appear to be omnipresent ghosts, hovering in the air or at the sidelines with a distinct presence, but without personality. That is because their faces, skulls and bodies are drained of individuality, but are invested with enough information to make them recognizable as racist caricatures.  And herein lies the moment of viewer self-indictment that Walker engineers so carefully and on which her reputation rests.  It comes with the realization
Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) + Confederate Prisoners Being Conducted from Jonesborough, 2005, Offset lithography and screen print on paper, 39 x 53"
that we know something we wish we didn’t: Namely, that “nappy” hair, large lips, protruding buttocks, ragged clothing and the like are identifiers of blackness, embedded in us through repetition in film, advertising, literature and kitschy knickknacks — all of them familiar to people of a certain age who acquired this information at a time before overt expressions of it became unfashionable.   It’s a subtle but devastatingly effective technique that brands everyone as an accomplice.
Here, it’s worth noting that Walker is hardly the first to use silhouettes for racial profiling.  The practice of using shadow figures made of black paper was invented in France as a means of creating cheap portraits.  It was named after Marquis Etienne de Silhouette, a minister who imposed austerity measures on the country to finance the Seven Years’ War against Britain (1754-63).  It was later taken up by Johann Caspar Lavater, a Swiss pastor who developed the pseudo science of physiognomy, which claimed to assess personality and intelligence by observing physical characteristics such as “aristocratic high foreheads, brutish thick lips, and determined jaws.”  His Essays on Physiognomy was first published in German in 1772.  
Still from National Archives Publication M999 Roll 34: Bureau of Refugees, Freedman and Abandoned Lands: Six Miles from Springfield, video, 13:21 minutes
Walker’s shadow-puppet film, National Archives Microfilm Publication M999 Roll 34: Bureau of Refugees, Freedman and Abandoned Lands: Six Miles from Springfield on the Franklin Road, about a true incident in 1866, blends Lavater’s ideas with the cinematic use of the silhouette pioneered by the German Expressionist Lotte Reiniger.  It tells, through the herky-jerky movements of paper figures controlled by the artist’s hands, the wrenching story of a victimized black family.  Set to a quiet piano score that imposes a calm counterpoint to the violence inflicted by white perpetrators, it lays bare the reality of freed slaves in the Reconstruction era.  That reality, as the historian Robert Caro noted in the third volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, was to last for nearly a century.  In 1948, the U.S. Senate, then under the control of Southern “Dixiecrats, was unable to bring an anti-lynching measure to a vote.  Legislation to repeal poll taxes suffered a similar fate — one that is being replayed today in the passage of voter ID laws designed to disenfranchise minority voters, not prevent fraud.  
Some observers have criticized the Crocker show because it contains only one of Walker’s large-scale wall works.  While one can always wish for more, I cannot.  Despite having seen Walker’s work before, I left the show reeling.  Reflecting on what I’d seen, I replayed every racist incident, joke, comment or situation I could remember, and I attempted, as best I could, to mine them for whatever meaning I could glean.  
Like I said earlier, Kara Walker knows how to light a fire.  Weeks after having viewed this show it’s still burning inside of me.  
“Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power” @ the Crocker Art Museum through January 5, 2014.  A schedule of additional dates and locations for this traveling show can be found at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.  

One Response to “Kara Walker @ Crocker Art Museum”

  1. Thank you for this rich review of Walker’s powerful show. I was impressed by the works early on, but your remarks compel me to visit again while we have the exhibition at the Crocker.


Vertical Slideshow

Email Subscription Request

You will receive a verification message once you submit this form.