Here at the 32 Days of Black History blogathon, we’ve designated Sundays (Ack! It’s after midnight. Oh, well…) as “Black to the Future” days. In these entries, we will shine our spotlight on black folks you should know (but may not), folks you’re going to be hearing about in the future (if you haven’t already).
I first heard of artist Kara Walker in the early ’90s. Before I even saw any images, it was the title of a 50-foot-long panorama that would become her breakthrough work that caught my eye, and emblazoned the name “Kara Walker” on my brain: “Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.” Unforgettable, as are the visuals it represents.
At first glance, it seems innocent enough: A hoop-skirted southern belle arches up to kiss her suitor. A full moon and a cascade of Spanish moss hovers over them. Looking closer, another pair of thin, barefoot, legs peek from under that skirt, hiding what’s going on underneath. The point of the suitor’s sword is positioned to skewer the buttocks of a boy who is leaning over, offering a strangled chicken to a woman whose body has transformed into a boat. Overhead, a scrawny man floats by the volume of his genitals, which are puffed up like a balloon. Off to the side, a young girl in pickaninny pigtails fellates a boy dressed the same way as the gallant suitor. A woman cocks her leg and expels two babies as if she were defecating. The life-sized, panoramic mural swirls all these hateful stereotypes into a narrative about how slavery was used to turn black bodies into objects of sex, pain, commerce and shame. It also points to the ways that the oppressed have embraced stereotypes (floating with pride about genital size, dropping babies non-stop). The work reveals how we are all, black and white, viewer and artist, entangled in a distasteful web of racism. And like the deep, hidden roots of the disease, the silhouettes allow you to examine only the story’s shadows.
More, from Bloomberg.com:
“This scathing, scatalogical send-up of the romanticism of “Gone With the Wind” — including a slave girl who performs oral sex on a white boy — introduced an evolving cast of characters (the Negress, the Master, the pickaninny) with whom Walker has savaged racial stereotypes while embracing their most offensive features (nappy hair, swaybacked postures, pendulous breasts).”
Of course some old-guard artist folks got pissed off:
“Her use of these stereotypes, and the hackneyed 18th- century silhouettes, outraged an older generation of African- American artists, particularly other female artists, who objected to Walker’s suggestion that blacks played into the racist power structure established in the pre-Civil War South and prolonged its life.
The MacArthur Foundation, on the other hand, anointed Walker a “genius” by granting her a fellowship that, up until then, had emphasized lifetime achievement over promise. The 1997 award, along with a vituperative letter-writing campaign by dissenting artists to keep Walker from exhibiting anywhere, left her virtually nowhere to go but down.”
This reminded me of criticism of Alice Walker for The Color Purple. In a nutshell: the white literary establishment (and Steven Spielberg) embraced and rewarded her for slamming black men. (I didn’t read TCP that way, and I take issue with the folks who took issue with Walker–but feel free to opine about this in the comments.)
Similarly, I’ve heard it said that the only reason Edward P. Jones’s The Known World won the National Book Award is because it was about slavery (and black slaveowners)–and white people (aka award-givers) prefer books which show black folks disempowered. (The Known World didn’t exactly move me, but I liked it more than Naysue did.)
But back to Kara Walker. Instead of “going down”, she’s back and once again causing a stir with “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love”, a multimedia exhibition which debuted at the Whitney Museum of Art, and is headed to the Hammer Museum in L.A. in March.
More, again from Bloomberg.com:
“Instead, she increased her scale — one installation here is a 360-degree stand-alone cyclorama of unemancipated dancing darkies — and expanded into film, shadow puppetry and animation.
“She also produced a suite of 66 small, quickly sketched watercolors on notebook paper that addressed the controversy with unbridled contempt mixed with pride and dismay…
“They include crude Aunt Jemimas and “typical” white profiles. One image is a hanging tree that doubles as a cartoon thought-bubble. It begins, “So, I ask what is a positive black image (besides a contradiction in terms).”
“If the racist divide is still with us (see New Orleans, post-Katrina), the political furor surrounding Walker has long since quieted down. What’s more, thanks to the Internet, pornographic imagery has become as common as displays of the American flag. This environment not only blunts the force of Walker’s war on hypocrisy, it threatens to return her silhouettes to storybook sentimentality.
“The crux of Walker’s enterprise really lies in a dreamlike story, typed on index cards, about a woman whose good and evil twins take “a racist for a run,” seducing but not killing him, and fly off into the night “leaving beauty in our departure.”
“Though Walker can be crudely simplistic, her levitating silhouettes and delicate drawings have an arresting beauty and an ambiguity that is both alluring and deceptive. First it draws you in with kisses, then it pummels you with its fists.”
(Of course words don’t do the images justice, but the images available online were pretty small.)
Crowning her one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World”, Time magazine said this about Walker’s work:
“… [her] vigilance has produced a compelling reckoning with the twisted trajectories of race in America. Her installations and films forcefully pluralize our notion of a singular “history.” They create a profusion of backstories and revisions that slash and burn through the pieties of patriotism and the glosses of “color blindness.” Restarting the engines of seemingly archaic methods, from the graphic affect of silhouette portraits to the machine-age ethos of film, she produces a cast of characters and caricatures with appetites for destruction and reproduction, for power and sex. She raucously engages both the broad sweep of the big picture and the eloquence of the telling detail. She plays with stereotypes, turning them upside down, spread-eagle and inside out. She revels in cruelty and laughter. Platitudes sicken her. She is brave. Her silhouettes throw themselves against the wall and don’t blink.”
Kudos to Kara Walker for not blinking in the face of criticism, and for creating works that challenge and provoke without being gratuitous.
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