Wednesday, August 24, 2005
What the f*&% is wrong with Kara Walker?
This was the question that an 18-year old brutha ran into the room and yelled at me after his virgin encounter with the work of renowned contemporary artist Kara Walker. And you know, I dig where he's coming from. Many people can't stand her and her success. In 1996 when she was awarded a Macarthur "Genius" grant at the tender age of 27 (a prize that would make a cake eater like Damon Dash slobber all over himself - its worth $500,000), African American sculptor Betye Saar sent out hundreds of letters warning that Walker's "images may be in your city next," and signing herself "an artist against negative black images." Walker repurposes the ancient southern belle pastime of silhouetting. She arranges life-size shadows in nightmarish tableaux, and scatological scenes filled with violent and transgressive miscegenation. There are no easy answers or moral truths in Kara Walker's world. This classically trained painter with an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design and a teaching position at Columbia University is a darling of the art world and a demon to many older Black artists and scholars. I've heard her described by a young Walker Art Center curator as "THE most important living American artist." At a recent Walker Art Center (no relation) artist talk, the new McGuire Theater was filled to capacity with 450 reverentially silent folk - Black and White. So, let's take a look at one of her images and see if we can discern what all the hoopla is about and what made that young brutha freak out.
Here in a nearly life-size silhouette, a naked black girl kneels to suck the cock of a white slave owner. He has the claws and paws of Satan, and the jaw of an ape. His cock goes into her mouth and out her ass. And Walker gives it a devilish title as well. Exactly what are the "successes" alluded to in the title? Perhaps one of these "successes" is that the slaver has managed to get, shall we assume, his "negress" (a favorite self-referential term of the artist) to ingest and defecate his cock at the same time? I'd like to think that this seemingly powerless black slave girl who simultaneously swallows and excretes this demon is one of the "successes" referred to in the title. Maybe they've both achieved some sort of "success" and therefore the plural usage? Perhaps there is a pun in the title? What is clear is that there is more going on here than just a master/slave relationship. There are traces of tenderness in this image; touching that seems intimate and knowing. She reaches out toward his boot and he rests his paw, fingers drawn in passively, as if stroking her back with his knuckles. And what are we to imagine is in the quote box? I suspect he's making a carnal sound that is a mix of pleasure and terror - for indeed, he is trapped. If he kills her during the act of copulation what then happens to his monstrous cock? Does she clamp down and bite it off? Will he have to perform a gruesome vivisection to release his member? Is there no way to uncouple them without killing them both? Perhaps he too knows this and submits? So, what at first looks like domination is, in fact, a sinister symbiosis that is also Sisyphean in character. To me, this image might also illustrate how slavery warps the slave and the slaver alike and binds them in an eternal and infernal dance. Or, is this a scene of lovemaking?
There is a morally ambiguous (to say the least) type of interdependence portrayed in Kara Walker's work that confounds the victim/victimizer dialectic and that appears also in Consume from 1996. These psychological Moebius strips devoid of clear moral order and message are part of what I suspect drives so many people bonkers when they encounter her work. Particularly older Black artists, reared in the Black Arts Movements with its crystalline moral codes of racial uplift and Black Pride. Kara Walker just aint that clear. As Jerry Saltz wrote, "No one gets out of Kara Walker's world alive, not even the artist." And Cathy Fox, the Atlanta Journal Constitution art critic, wrote that Walker creates, "disarming, disconcerting, disturbing tableaux that explore racism, stereotypes and forbidden lusts in a way that offers no moral high ground and leaves no one-black or white-feeling comfortable." Walker says that her artistic intentions are to "make art that is self-incriminating for everybody. . . . I decided that if I'm going to delve into race and racism, as was expected of me as an African-American artist. . . I was going to pull out the stops." I'd say she'd done that and more.