Missus Walker's Curious Traveling Exposition at the Driskell Center
Since Kara Walker’s groundbreaking art captured our attention in the mid-1990s, her admirers and critics have been debating the meaning of her silhouettes, her sculpture, even her statements.
Last year when I walked into the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn and initially saw A Subtlety, her mammoth Negroid sphinx, I was speechless. And as I walked around this giant work, I thought not only about shape, material and grandeur, but Walker’s complex layers of history and image underneath the sugar. Should the black women who had labored on the sugar plantations, and later the factories, be immortalized in a form that was meant to melt? Should one enormous form with protruding lips and butt represent all the shapes and sizes that had tolled in the heat? I thought of my grandma, and almost everyone’s grandma, and their invitation: come here sugar and hear the truth.
What continues to be a constant in Walker’s work is her ability to surprise with new artistic language and to force the viewer to rethink old images, old notions, and old platitudes.
Currently, this is most evident in Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power at the David C. Driskell Center, University of Maryland, through May 29, 2015. On view is a fundamental lesson in how Walker re-imagines something very familiar, pulling apart historical memory and inserting her version of the truth. For many of us, it becomes our painful truth or validates our engrained viewpoints on slavery, sexual identification and racial entanglements. Throughout her work, Walker provides a mirror, one that people might have avoided.
Almost everyone who has studied the Civil War has seen the depictions of battles, generals, slaves and other scenes in Harper’s Weekly. That journal was the emerging mass media’s record of the Civil War. In these works Walker goes right to the core of one of the revered canons of American history. And the show arrived at the Driskell Center as the public commemorates the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death and the end of the Civil War, predictably with images now 150 years old.
For example, one lithograph and screenprint is based on the Harper's Weekly "Deadbrook after the Battle of Ezra’s Church" ilustration. That provides the background, like wallpaper, with Walker placing a large silhouette of a black woman standing on the back of a fallen soldier. In another print “Confederate Prisoners Being Conducted from Jonesborough,” Walker situates a large profile of a head. All the prisoners are looking at the silhouette, a reminder of their atrocities.
Looking at one after another of her canvases, the work is undoubtedly brave and skillful but the themes are so thought-provoking a viewer can’t possibly just take one look. The Harper’s figures definitely recede, replaced with Walker’s explanations.
Early in her career, Walker, now 45, found sudden success. With signature silhouettes, Walker managed to take us to unexpected places. Nothing in the African American experience was off limits, searching, as she has said, for the “underlying turbulence.” Raised in California and Georgia, the daughter of an artist, Larry Walker, she went to the Atlanta College of Arts and then the Rhode Island School of Design.
It was a 1994 show in New York at the Drawing Center that drew initial praise and provocative questions. And who could forget the title that established her perspective, her daring and her humor: Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and her Heart.
Don’t stop there, said those in the midst of discovering Walker.
The adoption of silhouettes went to a dark soul somewhere because they don’t look at us directly. They could bring chills. One depicted a slave uprising with the slave master being disemboweled by a soup ladle. From then Walker extended her invitation to us to join her on her journey to destroy 19th Century stereotypes. She was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1997 and represented the U.S. in the San Pablo 2002 Biennial.
Last year her examination of history resounded in her first public art project, the 40 foot tall sphinx, and the debate only heated up an electric career.
Another section of the Driskell 60-piece show takes the viewer in another direction, tackling racist images, especially sexual treatments and depictions of African American women.
The examinations of many of the notorious views of black women, strong women, available women, using their sexuality as a power tool is sharply treated. “Emancipation Approximation” dazzles in its complexities.
On her canvas Walker educates; this time bringing her audience into the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, the powerful Zeus. Usually depicted as beautiful serene creatures, these swans are raping, abusing and, in revenge, are swallowed by a black woman. In this series, the background often changes from Walker’s familiar white to grey and some silhouettes are white. It’s arresting
All the art in the Driskell show was collected by Jordan D. Schnitzer, a real estate mogul in Oregon, organized by the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, and the show is traveling.
The message is: let’s remember and let’s correct. On one print a group of hands reaches for a ship, rolling through the Middle Passage. The silhouettes are of bodies in the water.
Who hasn’t heard black people, even the President and First Lady, compared to animals, particularly monkeys? In I’ll be a Monkey’s Uncle, a male silhouette is barefoot, dressed in pants and jacket, with a long tail sticking out. A young silhouette is washing a cloth for him, denoting her affection and concern.
Since she stepped on the arts stage, Walker has had a number of shows at leading places, such as the Whitney Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Studio Museum, and the Walker Art Center.
For this show the Driskell Center joins a number of college galleries that are open to Walker’s ideas and work. After the show leaves Driskell, it travels to the Springfield Art Museum, Springfield, Mo. Then an installation at University of Wyoming Art Museum in Laramie closes this tour.
All images, with the exception of The Subtlety installation view, courtesy of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.
Jacqueline Trescott is an independent writer and editor whose recent projects include editing Through the Eyes of James A. Porter: American Art by Starmanda Bullock. Trescott formerly was an arts and culture reporter for the Washington Post Style section.