A black lascivious baby bandaging the head of a wounded soldier, possibly confederate. A white man walking while giving (or imposing) cunnilingus to a black hydrocephalic woman. Fredric Douglass. OJ Simpson. A composite of Peter Tosh and the Baron Samedi holding Trump’s head. Salome offering Trayvon Martin’s severed head on her tray, while a missionary with a voluptuous backside admonishes her. A Ku Klux Klan member hiding Trump under his skirts. An 18th century libertine masturbating. Batman stealing a mummy topped with a black head.
These are just a few of the dancers in the mad masquerade that pours out of Kara Walker’s imagination onto paper in the works Christ’s Entry into Journalism, 2017, The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (after Delacroix, Kienholz), 2017, U.S.A. Idioms, 2017. These large murals of black ink painted on flimsy paper, which are shown together in the main room, literally stop visitors with their shock value. They address a divisive subject in America: the relationship between Caucasians and African Americans. If one listens closely, grating, gnashing, creaking, shrieks, squealing, screams of pain and of pleasure are heard. These collections of human figures, with just a few added details such as the confederate flag or a diminutive ship, are thrown together with minimal indications of perspective or spatial organization. Additionally, the exhibition’s smaller works, representing only one or two characters, could be details excised from the larger pieces.
Walker’s seemingly random presentation of details calls to mind the model of the rhizome, an aspect of French Theory developed by thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. The rhizome is described botanically as a continuously growing horizontal underground stem that puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals. The philosophy scholar Alan Taylor defines it in the following terms: “The rhizome deterritorializes strata, subverts hierarchies. The rhizome can be ‘novel.’ It can create ‘strange new uses’ for the trees that it infiltrates. Most importantly, though, the rhizome engenders ‘lines of flight.’ It allows for the re-opening of flows that the tree shuts down…The rhizome offers some hope of bringing about a kind of ‘liberation’ from structures of power and dominance.” Representing reality in the form of rhizomes undermines the power of the “master” approach, which has been typical of Western culture. The application of a single organizing principle tends to reject the multiform and to use difference to enforce racism.
The rejection of hierarchical structure first made its appearance in the Baroque period. At that time, thinkers challenged notions of absolutism, whether religious or political, leading to revolutions in England, America and France. One of these thinkers, Gottfried Leibniz, came up with a philosophy pertaining to Baroque that is still relevant, according to Deleuze, as a tool for analyzing contemporary arts. Leibnitz interpreted the world as a body of infinite folds and surfaces that twist and weave through compressed time and space. References to baroque abound in Walker’s works on show, whether it is the oval format of paintings, the scrolling structures of the large paintings, or even the paper cut silhouettes, a technique that became popular in the 1700s.
Baroque art tends to be witty, decorative, and superficial. Walker’s juxtaposition of this style with the tragic content of the images makes for powerful irony. Walker claims the right to lay bare her inner world fantasies when it could be argued, and has, that some imaginings should best be kept to one’s self. Her latest technique, gestural, of painting ink on paper, allows for a spontaneity which was lacking in the large silhouette paper cuts that brought her the initial attention of the art world. As fantasies by definition break taboos and involve situations that are unlikely, details play an essential role in forging an alternative reality for their creator. The images she produces — obscene, racist, sexist – indeed break taboos but they also forfeit any claim to political correctness one might have expected her to seek , particularly as an African American artist.
In an interview for the Guardian, Walker disclosed having written in a free associative way while still in college and referred to the Marquis de Sade, another figure of the Baroque period: “I was 22. I was writing to find my voice, because I didn’t talk very much. This kind of Marquis de Sade stuff started coming out of me, which I didn’t know was there. […] It was a release that was very real, disruptive and secretive.”
In fact, this content has raised controversy particularly in the African American community, and it is easy to understand why a painting such as Christ Entering Journalism would upset members of the public. It is certainly the most memorable work in the exhibition, with its wide range of characters prancing around, the rotundity of their physique cycling in a cataclysmic spiral. The composition, darker in the lower part, the figures smaller at the top, mimics a classic perspective representation of space. However, this structure is artificial, since there are no other visual references anchoring the representation of the third dimension. The human figures, whether African Americans or Caucasian, all come from our common vocabulary of caricatures and stereotypes as represented in the media since the founding of the USA. A whole slew of narratives are built by sequences of the same character, such as Rip van Winkle, the man who ignored historical progress, or by characters interacting with each other. The resulting scripts are violent, pornographic, satirical, whether they shoot, punch, penetrate. They can also be utterly absurd. Some figures form ethnic plates that might have been entitled “head of a typical negro.” A lone African American woman, going about her business with dignity and purpose, is about to fall into a black hole: no future for her. Christ enters journalism, 2000 years after entering Jerusalem, and it’s not a pretty sight. In fact, it hurts. The ink is painted on flimsy and cheap material, paper, sometimes shredded in a fringe, as if the work might be discarded soon, either because it’s a preliminary sketch or because it is deemed deserving to be trashed by the viewer. Kara Walker is quite clear that her work raises controversy, stating in the long, emphatically upper-cased title of the exhibition:
STUDENTS OF COLOR WILL EYE HER WORK SUSPICIOUSLY AND EXERCISE THEIR FREE RIGHT TO CULTURALLY ANNIHILATE HER ON SOCIAL MEDIA. […] PRESTIGIOUS ACADEMIC SOCIETIES WILL WITHDRAW THEIR SUPPORT…
The ink portrays everything in shades of black and white, an apt metaphor for the way Western civilization has equated superiority with degrees of whiteness in everyone and everything, and attributed little value to colors and differences. Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something), 2017, the only piece in the exhibit that still uses the silhouette style, presents another application of black and white contrast. The silhouettes are actually painted on paper, but the reference to cut-outs is obvious. Profile images are more readable in picturing ethnic types over a full-face image, as the profile depends strongly upon the proportions of the facial bone structures, a major variable between humans. While her previous silhouette pieces featured Caucasians and African types, the profiles here almost all look African or are ambiguous, except for a devilish trickster. Because the shapes have no inner detail, their identity and relationship to each other are ambiguous. When two figures or more touch each other, they lose their singular identity to form just one monstrous entity.
The slaughter of the innocents in the Bible alludes to the killing of small children. But who are the genitors, and who are the children here? Who are the criminal perpetrators, who are the innocent victims? A young woman holds a large egg or her uterus. An egg is broken, its yolk spilled, and babies are cut open. That broken egg could have been hatched by a young girl running away from a devilish creature who wants to kill or rape her. Up and down is mixed up, as innocence can be turned into guilt. A snake, traditionally a symbol of guilt, looks phallic in the hand of a naked black woman. The actions of the creatures clipped by the sides of the piece are particularly ambiguous. A couple upside down at the top, cut off at the waist, could be having sex, or not. One head trimmed by the right edge of the piece brings to mind the shapes of shadow puppets: “the rabbit,” “the fox,” “the duck.” This one is “the negro.” The piece itself seems to have been cut from a larger piece as a statement from the artist that the work exists independently of her, as if she had brought one piece of that reality to the audience as best she could.
In The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (after Delacroix, Kienholz), 2017, innocence and guilt are also confused. Delacroix’ The Death of Sardanapalus depicts the Assyrian ruler as he has just ordered the death of his women, slaves, horses and his most treasured concubine after learning of the defeat of his army. A striking composition on a diagonal, its unstable geometry emphasizes the macabre in the deliberate destruction. Delacroix attributes the absurdity in killing what is dearest to one’s heart to the exoticism of the king, to his “otherness.”
Walker’s version, a reference to police brutalizing African American teenagers at a pool party, makes everyone a perpetrator. The black young girls in bathing suits might look the picture of innocence yet they’re involved in torture. It is as if Walker merges two views together: the innocence of the young girls and the guilt the white policemen see in them. In the resulting chaos, all boundaries are destroyed. A civilization is killing what should be dearest, its people’s innocence, their dignity, their humanity whether they’re African Americans or Caucasians.
Most of the violence in The Pool Party is inflicted through stabbing or gut wrenching, metaphors for emotional pain. “Cutting” is a major theme in Walker’s work. Sometimes the characters are cut, sometimes she uses cutting as a technique. While bodies are slashed and stabbed and cut open, a head severed at the neck appears as the more common motif in the exhibition. The heads are not all literally cut, Walker often uses an artistic device to eliminate their bodies. Cutting off implies a violence, a trauma, which has been one of the many forms of physical violence African Americans experienced during slavery and after. In Walker’s work, cutting comes across as an expression of her process. She cuts herself to pour herself out, pour away these images that haunt her imagination. The head cutting also suggests a discontinuity between the intellect and the body. It is through their bodies that African Americans have been enslaved, as the mind can retain freedom from the oppressor. On top of the abuse, their bodies have been ridiculed, debased, likened to animals, represented as an antithesis of beauty. How can African Americans understand themselves and build a wholesome identity if their mind and physicality are disconnected?
Another severed head appears in Brand X (Slave Market Painting), 2017, as an African man seems to be buried in the sand as a punishment or to prevent escape. Violence permeates the whole painting to impose a nightmarish vision. The couple master/black baby suggests that the baby has just performed fellatio on the master and is now exacting his reward in cash. At first glance, the sailor looks like he is masturbating, but further observation reveals that he is branding an African woman, with a heart. They are both attractive young individuals. Should they not be lovers rather than perpetrator and victim? A voluptuous white woman suckles a black baby and a white baby, something that could never have happened in that context, when black women were obliged to feed white babies as well as their own.
One group of characters particularly strikes the imagination with its nasty sequence of perpetrators and victims: a policeman in riot gear forces a black woman to whip a freshly arrived slave who is manacled and prostrated on the floor, while a house slave dressed in a lace frock tightens the bond. The victim, her head almost detached from her body, fits the stereotype of the dumb, superstitious black woman, more animal than human. The whole scene is highly sexualized, with the alluring body of the woman at the whip barely dressed in slave pants, and the policeman having full view of the African’s genitals. One naked black woman, tiny, is not to scale whereas the master is larger than the other characters. This kind of treatment of size according to importance is typical of works produced in hierarchical societies from the Pharaonic or Maya eras to the European Middle Ages. Apart from this anomaly, Brand X has a more classical representation of perspective: the foreground being linked in a space continuum to the distant background. There, a ship, another recurrent detail in the exhibition, might carry more humans to slavery, or offer escape.
Brand X, produced by applying color sticks to canvas, looks like a preparatory draft for a historical painting. It is the only piece in this format, an intermediary between the wild, unstructured works on paper and the oil paintings on linen canvas such as The (Private) Memorial Garden of Grandison Harris, 2017, and Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit), 2017. Linen is more durable, and more costly, than cotton for canvas, and has been traditionally used by European masters. These works bring to mind paintings from the 1900s that include water as a mythical element, such as Summer by Pierre Puvis de Chavanne, or Bathers by Paul Cézanne, or Luncheon on Grass by Manet. The palette is restricted to hues of black, white and a tan reminiscent of the background of American 19th century silhouettes. Walker’s oil on linen paintings have a different quality from her previous work, more controlled, more constructed, leaning toward symbolism. The tragedy of their protagonists is expressed in noble terms, quite different from the raw etchings of the ink paintings.
What could have more pathos than the story of Grandison Harris who had to unbury the bodies of black slaves to satisfy the needs of medical students? The (Private) Memorial Garden of Grandison Harris, 2017, a diptych which features a Pietá like pair in Harris clasping the corpse, transcends its subject to reach a religious dimension. In Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit), 2017, two kinds of poisonous liquids, one dark, one light, surge from the bottom of the pit to swallow everyone, like a general neurosis. Hence the themes are consistent throughout the exhibition, but with a very different feel depending on the format. While Walker has the guts to throw cruel fantasies out on paper, she also has the confidence to claim mastership with her linen paintings. It is a justified claim, as proved by the elegance of the compositions. She also takes the right to express herself within a purely Western cultural framework in terms of format: oil on linen, silhouettes, ink sketches; and genres: historical paintings, baroque, romanticism, American cartoons.
The fact that Walker does not produce positive images of African Americans and of their culture has been resented by members of her community, but any such resentment she preemptively rejects: “(…) frankly I am tired,” she tells us in her gallery press release, “tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.’”
In Architecture of Experience, Scottish thinker Graham Dunstan Martin argues that the primary goal of artistic expression is to challenge accepted perceptions and social constructs. The artist’s role is to present an alternative narrative that makes us reflect on the imposed, “master” narrative in the real world. Walker does not offer an alternative. She projects on the wall the scripts that have been dictated to us by the media, and they’re shocking. The interactions described by the artist do not come across as didactic. It is not always the Whites who stab the Blacks; the Blacks are not always innocent. The narratives are about power, whether implemented through physical violence or financial operations, as characteristic of our society. However, the images she uses do not treat Whites and Blacks equally, as the caricatures she draws have been produced by the dominating culture. The Caucasians in the work are depicted as exploitative, sexually predatory, vacuous, lazy. These caricatures are based on accurate perceptions of white supremacists, slave owners, and other enforcers of racism who have indeed been guilty of violence and sexual predation and bigotry and prejudice. The stereotypes of African Americans, as produced and reproduced by the media, show them as lazy, stupid, lascivious. These representational traits, fallacious and deliberately derogative, are products of the dominating society’s subconscious projections, fears and prejudices.
Clearly, sharing publicly these inner images involves grief and requires courage, a process that allows for the release and relief from strong repressed emotions. This catharsis is particularly evident in the ink works, in what seems like an intuitive rather than a reflective method. In terms of form, Walker eschews the master principle with her baroque, rhyzomic work. In terms of content, however, Walker brazenly transliterates the master’s views. She certainly does not offer an alternative or ameliorative scenario, preferring instead to shock us thanks to her outstanding visual expressiveness into coming up with a new narrative. Can we imagine a world where power does not regulate human interactions, where violence, humiliation and discrimination are not inflicted systematically on a group, where colorful differences are valued more than hues of black and white?
Opening night at Sikkema Jenkins & Co
Arabella Hutter von Arx is a writer with a background in film and TV production. While producing for the BBC, Channel 4, Gaumont, Bravo (Inside the Actors’ Studio) then working as the executive director of IQ, an international organization of producers, she contributed regularly articles for magazines and European newspapers. She devotes now all her time to writing, with a particular focus on the arts and on women’s issues.