“I want people to respond and to be aware that if a goody-two-shoes like me can have all this going on in her head, then nobody’s safe,” Kara Walker once said. In the current exhibit of her art, My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, Kara Walker opens up her head and her heart and assaults the viewer with her dizzying, confounding, troubling, and downright offensive combination of the profound and the profane aspects of the history of race relations in America. In works such as Untitled (The Oppressor/Oppressed Paradigm) (above), Walker shifts the standard paradigms of how American racism has been understood and brings to light the sexual undertones and symbiotic relationship of master/slave, proving herself an equal opportunity offender of sensibilities.
The postmodern fingerprints of Michel Foucault cover much of Walker’s work and philosophy. In works such as Discipline and Punish, Foucault examined the strange dynamic in which the oppressed participates in their own oppression, enabling the oppressor to assume that role. As the catalogue to the exhibit describes, Walker’s taken a great deal of heat for following this line of thought. Fellow African-American artists Betye Saar and Howardena Pindell called for museums to boycott Walker’s work, accusing her of acting as a surrogate for the white establishment, an unwitting pawn doing the dirty work of cleaning up American slavery’s legacy by “blaming” the slaves as much as the slavers. In his essay in the catalogue, “Primitivism in the Works of an Emancipated Negress,” Thomas McEvilley analyzes Walker’s approach and agrees that “[i]t would require an Olympian distance for a descendent of enslaved people to contemplate the idea that there is no right or wrong in history, yet that seems to be how the significations of Walker’s practice add up: everyone’s wrong.” If everyone’s wrong, then nobody’s right. Walker erases right and wrong, leaving the issue hanging in state of the anxious uncertainty that mimics real life best.
Kara Walker, Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery or “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny's Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life)” See the Peculiar Institution as never before! All cut from black paper by the able hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and leader in her Cause, 1997; cut paper and adhesive on wall , 12 x 85 ft. (3.7 x 25.9 m) overall; Collections of Peter Norton and Eileen Harris Norton, Santa Monica, California; Photo courtesy Walker Art Center
This “endless conundrum,” to steal the title of one of Walker’s works, unsettles even the most hardened of theorists. Philippe Vergne, organizer of the catalogue and author of the opening essay, “The Black Saint Is the Sinner Lady,” calls Endless Conundrum “more akin to a philosophical bordello than a story,” which gets at the heart of Walker’s imaginative play with the signs and symbols behind the standard narrative. “Walker manipulates codes and taboos, such as humor and sexuality,” Vergne writes, “to disclose her doubts about representation and to channel her discontent and anger over a broken social contract.” In other words, Walker takes the vast buffet of American historical imagery and stuffs it into a high-speed blender. Walker provides a tasty sample of her special brew in a visual essay included in the catalogue that she titles “Chronology of Black Suffering: Images and Notes, 1992-2007.” In that visual essay, Aunt Jemima, Rosa Parks, actors playing slaves at Colonial Williamsburg, Josephine Baker, a romance novel cover featuring Fabio, the D.C. Sniper, and Halle Berry begging Billy Bob Thornton to make her “feel good” in Monster’s Ball, among others, all speed by your consciousness, leaving a distinct impression that your mind strives to disentangle long afterwards. Yet, despite all this philosophical sophistication, Walker chooses to present her perspective in crude drawings and simple black paper cutouts, as in Slavery! Slavery! (above), which promises a “GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery” but delivers simple solid black figures on a white background, rejecting the power of images while calling that power into question. As Vergne puts it, “armed with a cruel laugh and a pair of scissors,” Walker “looks back, she remembers and dismembers, in order to come to terms with the past and be reconciled with the present.”
Kara Walker, The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, 1995; cut paper and adhesive on wall , 15 x 38 ft. (4.6 x 11.6 m) overall; Collection Jeffrey Deitch, New York Photo courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Walker’s cruel laugh rings loudest when encountering the literature of American race relations, especially Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book James Baldwin acidly called “Everybody’s Protest Novel” becomes in Walker’s hands everybody’s worst nightmare. In The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (above), Uncle Tom appears as a weak facilitator of the slave trade denying him his humanity. “She sexualizes and brutalizes Stowe’s narrative,” Vergne asserts, “and caricatures the so-called loving affection and sentimentality between master and slave to make it visually and intellectually insufferable.” Walker takes the comforting Christianity of Stowe’s work and chops it off at the knees, condemning Uncle Tom as much as his masters for perpetuating the peculiar institution.
''History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,'' James Joyce’s stand-in Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses. Kara Walker’s work serves as a raucous and rude alarm clock that jolts us from that nightmare—not to the reassurance of a rational world but to that unsure netherworld of half-dreaming and half-awake. The title of the exhibit comes from a passage in Walker’s Letter From a Black Girl. The letter itself appears on the cover and endpapers of the catalogue, making it an uncomfortable commuter read when you know that the fourth word (and many after) is an expletive. Simply holding the catalogue can be an uncomfortable feeling. In another work in which she fantasizes raping former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Walker writes, “All I want is to be loved by you/ And to share all that deep contradictory/ love I possess. Make myself/ your Slave girl so you will make/ yourself my equal—if only for a Minute.” In exploring the nature of that “deep contradictory love” at the root of American race relations, Walker reveals her own “deep contradictory love” of the power of art itself, taking the troubled images of the past and all the philosophical and emotional baggage they lug along and reshaping them into something new, something perhaps enlightening, yet undeniably something her own.
[Many thanks to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City for the review copy of the catalogue to Kara Walker, My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love and the images from the exhibit.]