Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love

And Kara Walker...

Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love

Investigating the popular reception of Kara Walker’s work is a strange exercise of virulently opposite perspectives, different generations, and a national culture that often can’t confront, let alone comprehend, a potently lingering racism or the ultra-lacerating history that led to it. The most famous response came in 1997, when Betye Saar notoriously exclaimed that Walker’s work used “derogatory [stereotypes] of pickaninnies, sambos, and mulatto slave mistresses… for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment.” Saar, who is from an earlier generation of African American artists, accused Walker of betraying her race by reinvigorating these deeply racist symbols and presenting them in a sexually debased, sado-masochistic plea for artistic recognition.

While I would never deny Saar her opinion, I believe that she stops short from piercing the deeper reality of Walker’s work. While Walker does portray negative African American stereotypes with a vaguely defined but unrestrained self-loathing, she does so to re-problematize a race debate that has grown far too complacent in recent days. Her work, explored in a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American art, reveals the sad, infuriating complexity of a toxic racism that gave rise to American slavery and continues, subtly hidden and often unchecked, into the present day.

Immediately upon entering the exhibition, the viewer is assaulted by The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, 1995. A wall-sized panorama of silhouettes cut from black paper, the work plays out like a fever dream of psychological debasement and historical festering. Three slave women suckle one another while an infant goes unfed; a small black child defecates uncontrollably beside a white southern belle who swings an axe upon herself; a repugnantly obese, crippled slave master sodomizes a young slave while impaling another with a sword. Walker’s warped treatment of the antebellum South has all the smothering paranoia of a nightmare and the immediacy of a howl.

The viewer’s shadow intermingles with the silhouettes, suggesting a discomforting personal involvement in Walker’s narrative of race psychosis. We become inextricably bound to the work, as we are inextricably bound to the pandemic that spawned it. A later silhouette piece, Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey…, 1997, achieves an even greater and more disturbing synthesis of viewer and work by wrapping completely around a circular room. The space becomes a nexus of racist self-loathing and psychosexual atavism, inundating and inescapable.

A later series of collage pieces violently debunk the problematic narrative recounted by Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, culling imagery from the history’s pages and combining it with pornographic photos of African American women. The works, completed from 2001 to 2005, juxtapose the typically noble treatment of white Civil War generals found in Harper’s with the dregs of black sexual exploitation. The most striking piece presents a nude black woman, legs spread, with imagery of Civil War battle covering her mouth, breasts, and genitals. Walker suggests that the female African American body is bitterly contested territory, enslaved and objectified by white sexual aggression.

The most effecting work of the show is Walker’s video pieces, which have a raw immediacy that heightens the operatic theatricality already present in the artist’s best work. 8 Possible Beginnings of: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker, 2005, is a form of surreal revisionist history, an often leeringly hideous shadow play that reveals the agonizing psychological legacy of slavery and its greatest benefactor, King Cotton. The piece is purposely reminiscent of Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith’s silent epic that recounted the ascendancy of the Ku Klux Klan as a noble, ordering influence over a barbarous, morally vacant throng of freed slaves. Walker steals Griffith’s blatantly racist mythology and turns it upon itself in a rending display of historical sarcasm.

In the video’s central sequence, a black slave and his white master fellate one another while cotton sprites dance gleefully above. The master “impregnates” the slave with a cotton blossom, spawning the bizarrely misshapen byproduct of King Cotton and slavery. The child, a mutant, decaying reflection of the joyous cotton sprites, is Walker’s symbol for the psychological fissure at the heart of America’s racial history. It is the buried cancer, malignant and seemingly inoperable, that her work makes dreadfully clear.

The silhouette is Walker’s weapon of choice, and there is no doubt that she wields it with incredible anger. They are certainly visually arresting, and it is tempting to appreciate them on aesthetic grounds alone. But their macabre content and Walker’s barely concealed fury defuse any purely formal enjoyment. The characters confront the viewer with forceful baseness and deadly vulgarity, demanding to be seen and understood as both offensive stereotypes and symptoms of an insidious cultural disease.

While Saar would argue that the artist is giving these images new life, Walker suggests that they have always been part of the national id, putrefying in our collective unconscious like a rotten tooth. For Walker, while the disease remains, there will always be a need to appropriate its most repugnant imagery for use in vicious retaliation. As she exclaims in one of her text pieces, “I make art foranyone whos forgot what it feels like to put up a fight…”

Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love
The Whitney Museum of American Art
October 11, 2007 - February 3, 2008

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