Sunday, March 30, 2008

Kara Walker (excerpt from Flaunt magazine)

In the current issue of Flaunt magazine is an essay I wrote on Kara Walker. While working on the essay, which I intend to expand into a foundational cornerstone of a larger project I'm working on with Mark Bradford, I came to be a huge fan of Walker's. One thing I love about her is that she sparks such smart conversation across the divide of opinion. Really, really smart people loather her; really, really smart people worship her. Both camps can make convincing arguments. I appreciate that. Below are a few excerpts from my piece on her. (By the way, this shit is copyrighted.):

Excerpt 1:

      Last winter, while attending a symposium on the life and music of James Brown at Princeton University, I shared lunch with a handful of fellow Negroes—professors, artists, writers. The conversation moved with velocity; it was vibrant, active: dissecting current events, performing political biopsies and cultural autopsies. There was a welcome and surprising absence of ego. Feeling slightly churlish, and disingenuously apologizing in advance for any toes I might (and silently hoped) to step on, I tossed out a loaded question:
      What was the table’s take on those folks of color—especially but not only Negroes—who toil in academia and the arts, whose focus is on questions of race and racism, but whose personal and professional lives are often painstakingly, blindingly, conspicuously white, and whose work often (therefore?) seems less a genuine examination of or commitment to the issues at hand than a career-building performance for the benefit or titillation of white folks?
      The question (more haltingly asked in real life) was barely out of my mouth before one woman spit out, “Like Kara Walker.” Heads nodded vigorously and assent was murmured.
      What, I asked, was the beef with Walker?
      “She’s still doing the same thing she’s been doing for fifteen years...”
      “She’s not telling me anything new...”
      “She’s vague and imprecise in her references and replications...”
      “She hates black people and is getting paid off that...”
      One guy meekly admitted that he really liked her written work, the sometimes scalding and always confrontational texts that share wall space with her infamous silhouettes.
      “No,” said the woman who’d first mentioned Walker’s name. “They just show how small and petty she is.”
      Not being well-versed in Walker’s oeuvre, I couldn’t do much more than listen and take it all in. (For the record, she wasn’t the spark behind my question, although My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, the retrospective of her work that was up then at the Whitney, now at the Hammer in Los Angeles, had made her a hot topic in both media coverage and civilian conversations at that time. I wasn’t familiar enough with her personal or professional life to know if she even fit the criteria of the original question.) I knew her controversial rep, had read quite a few critiques and essays on her art, and had seen a lot of her work both online and in art books and museum catalogues. A fledgling fan, I still hadn’t yet experienced her creative output as it was meant to be experienced: overwhelming you while bearing down from walls of galleries and museums, sucker punching you as it plays out on screens in the small viewing cubicles that show her video work in those same galleries and museums.
      Her meticulous, often gorgeously crafted silhouettes recreate plantation life with all the air-brushed subtext and swept-away history aggressively situated as primary text. The racial horrors of the antebellum South are magnified into something that, through brutal repetition of subject matter, attempts to convey the scale of real-life nightmares. There are unflinching depictions of rapes; lynchings; dismemberment; slave/master copulations both hetero and homo that unmask complicated, uncomfortable dynamics of power and desire; docile jigaboos submitting to their fates, and often seeming to be willing accomplices. This world of white owners and Negro property is composed of all manner of sexual debauchery and degradation, explicitly depicted. Violence is an intrinsic compound in the equation. And it’s all complicated by Walker’s cool intellectual distance, by her injection of humor (as dry as a Negro’s skin in winter), and by the unmistakable correlations drawn between the past and the present.

Excerpt 2:

      It is a week after the James Brown symposium and I’m racing with a friend to the Whitney to catch Walker’s show before the museum closes for the day. We are, of course, on CP Time. After a quick lunch near Columbia University, we dash from the diner and immediately come across a street vendor hawking used coffee-table art books, including tomes celebrating the photographic work of Herb Ritts and Robert Mapplethorpe. My eye falls on a battered copy of Without Sanctuary, the landmark hardcover catalogue that accompanied the museum show of the same name, in which photos and postcards of real-life lynchings were gathered as memorial, an attempt to illuminate the past and present. The images are primarily of black men, of course, but there are also black women and a Jewish man repping the inclusiveness of this country’s bigotry. I already own the book, so I thumb through it but put it back. Budgeting time unwisely, we drop into Kim’s Video store and browse for a few minutes, with me finally buying a remaindered copy of Tariq Ali’s book The Clash of Fundamentalisms. Ali is writing about empire and “terrorists,” religion and culture. He could just as well be speaking about race. As Fanon wrote, “The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness.” Has time really rendered those words untrue?
      At the museum, I’m blown away. Walker’s work is a never-ending Rorschach test. My friend nudges me to take special notice of the figure of a crouching woman who’s wearing a bonnet. She’s extending a hand out to a child of about 3 or 4 years of age, who uses the offered appendage to balance himself. Behind her back, the woman clutches a knife. Though the image is in silhouette, in black and white, what I clearly see is a blond, blue-eyed toddler with flushed cheeks and a single grinning tooth pushing up through his bottom gum. His eyes laugh. The mammy’s jaw is clenched, her eyes narrowed. The knife is gleaming. I burst into laughter and so does my friend. “I want that on my wall, on my ceiling, and on a T-shirt,” I tell him. Our laughter is hyper pronounced in the cavernous room, as everyone else is milling around somberly, swallowing all sound and reaction.
      I see the banana-clad ghost of Josephine Baker shimmer in the topless pickaninny twins of the “You Do” drawing, and chuckle that La Baker herself was a culture worker whose mining of the racially stereotypical and the avant-garde (whose selling of the racially stereotypical as the avant-garde) has softened over time from scandal and controversy into revered iconography.
      A video of two male silhouette cut-outs, one black and the other white, both visibly manipulated by Walker’s hands, shows the duo sucking and fucking each other in numbed plantation reverie, even conceiving a freakish child, and it strikes me as a fairly dead-on summation of modern-day mainstream hip-hop.
      Later, when flipping through the exhibit’s catalogue we bought, my friend and I will chuckle at the image of Walker’s hand-written note card that reads: “Defeated people never forget (Until they come out on top.)”

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Anonymous said...

The thing that interest me about Walker at this point, even more than her work, is how black intellectuals must carve out space to talk about her - privately, because the wagons have been circled so tightly around the defense of her work that actual critique/discussion has been muffled. basically, if you don't have something nice to say about Ms Walker, you'd better not say anything around the cadre of whites who have decided that her vision of the black imagination is the total and complete-- And that blackness defined as trauma is deeply interesting. So thanks for the conversation!

EH said...

You're right on all points, Anon, although I'm also interested in what Walker's work says about the present as well as the past (which I go into in more detail in my essay.) In the piece that I am still developing, I recount a convo with a black writer from NY who talks about just the ways in which white folk have made Walker the holy grail (du jour) of blackness and how protective they are of her... and why that is so.

Yvonne Bynoe said...


I have studied Walker's work a bit. I find her work interesting and provocative...but have yet to form a more solid assessment. In a way I think that she continues to dwell in the past because it is the foundation for our current ideas about race and race relations.

That being said, Walker's work can be considered the Holy Grail because there are few Black intellectuals taking on the task of discussing art in the public square...much less art created by people of African descent.

This vacuum allows everyone but Blacks to define the work and in doing so decide who is the authentic Black "spokesperson" and how is not.

Looking forward to reading more from you on this topic.


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