History, or the underbelly of history, is at the heart of Kara Walker’s work. She plays out her own version of the past on an epic scale, in fragmented visual narratives told through simple paper silhouettes, using as a backdrop one of America’s darker historical locations (the antebellum South) and more recently, the linear narrative that underlines the history of modernism. The silhouette aspect of her work finds its roots in nineteenth-century, middle-class Southern “ladies’ art” as well as the kitsch, mass-cultural icons and emblems that circulate widely in our society. The protagonists of her minstrel shows, however, owe much to the visceral writings of the Marquis de Sade and Steve Cannon. They lick, suck, dig, poke, shit, or copulate in a series of acts ranging from sexual voracity to outrageous sadism and auspicious indolence.
Walker’s use of the silhouette is part of a strategy. Her work aggressively expands the debates on race and its representation beyond the notion of good or bad iconography and imagery. She is pushing her art to a very specific level of narrative cohesion, using seductive visual effects to comment sarcastically, ribaldly, on the history of race relations, slavery, and sexual exploitation. She appropriates and twists the code of the constructed national memory that is American History. And she does it in such a way that no one is let off the hook. In her silhouettes, she says a lot with very little information, which is both the virtue and the vice of stereotyping.
One cannot pretend that the stereotypes she uses—most of which were created in the early nineteenth century—are no longer with us. We cannot pretend that we do not know what they mean and how they make us feel. Her appropriation of history, her historicization of the past, and her narrativization of society force her viewers to confront the idea of a collective memory that still resides in the present moment—that resides in the awareness that black bodies in pain for public consumption have been, and still are, a European/American spectacle. We are not only talking about basketball or boxing, but about Emmett Till, Rodney King, and Amadou Dialou.
Walker’s work triply implicates viewers in social guilt: the guilt surrounding the history of slavery, the guilt surrounding the use of stereotypes, and the guilt associated with witnessing sexual and scatological functions. She deliberately uses the narrative authority of the novel—which during the nineteenth century was a cultural form tied to bourgeois society and imperialism—as a system of social reference refining and articulating the authority of a sociohistorical status quo. And in order to make her critique more complex, beyond good and evil, beyond morality, she reveals a sense of humor that allows her to perpetuate stereotypes as she debunks and critiques them. At the end she leaves us conflicted, laughing ourselves to tears.
Walker’s intensely charged imagery, a broad institutional recognition and patronage of her work, and a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Grant in 1997 triggered a violent criticism and boycott campaign that year. Led by an older generation of African American artists, including Betye Saar and Howardena Pindell, the campaign attacked the relevancy and the true intent of her work. The criticism targeted Walker’s motivation, ability, and freedom (if not morality) to use black stereotypes and to assume responsibility for their cultural and political implications when representations of blackness/whiteness are paired with those of masculinity/femininity and class. The work was labeled “visual terrorism,” too “sexist and derogative” to be suitable for the audience’s gaze and judgment, and as perpetuating, through negative sexualized images, American racism and its sources.1
Created between August and December 1997, Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?, a series of sixty-six drawings in various media, was conceived by Walker as a diaristic response to the controversial campaign.2 Often including the artist’s writings, the work shares a traditional, though visceral, aesthetic that seems indebted to Francesco Goya, Egon Schiele, and Antonin Artaud. With often abrasive language and iconography, this series echoes Walker’s usual preoccupation with the sexualized self and racialized flesh and addresses frontally her feelings about the letter-writing campaign initiated by a “Finger Pointing Matron” against a “27 year old African-American Cunt (with a MacArthur Grant).”3 By attempting to identify the larger issues that the controversy raised—on one of the pages of the work she writes, “The Merits of Arguing over Representation: I mean—you can’t please everyone and why should you anyway!? Pindell’s argument—that this (My) work is not accepted by ALL Black People is Right … What ARTWORK actually Does that?”—Walker does not deny the necessity of the debate and allows herself to publicize her sarcastic, humorous, and sometimes angry and indignant voice, refusing a monolithic interpretation of her work.
Codes of representation—the ones that have shaped most of twentieth-century modernity—are at the center of Endless Conundrum, An African Anonymous Adventuress (2001). Commissioned by the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, for its exhibition Ornament and Abstraction, which brought together non-Western, modern, and contemporary works from the Fondation’s permanent collection, Endless Conundrum follows the same confrontational structures. The cut-paper composition is dominated by a silhouette evoking Josephine Baker—the “black Venus,” the “black pearl,” the “Creole Goddess”—being stripped of the banana skirt that took Europe by storm in the 1920s and 1930s. Baker, the Missouri-born singer, dancer, and actress who faced a violent racist reaction in America, embodies a fascination with the “other,” and in Walker’s composition she is swallowed in an epic, sexualized, dramatic, and historical narrative.
The other protagonists of this narrative are silhouettes of Constantin Brancusi’s modern icon, the Endless Column, and the figure of the colonizer who is by turns drawn, attacked, seduced, and devoured by the object of his own covetousness, lust, and ultimate misunderstanding: the exotic “others,” fetishes, and sculptures. The most memorable one might be a Gabonese fang ladder, easily mistaken for the Endless Column, or the other way around, and a Congolese Nkisi N’kondi nail figure waving at a fleeing colonizer, echoing its original purpose to “honor” departed ancestors. Part Dante’s Inferno and part Jacob’s Ladder, Walker’s Endless Conundrum pokes at the debate around Primitivism as a Eurocentric construction, in which the “primitives,” trapped between savagery and a state of grace, between diabolical rites and superstitions, between darkness and enlightenment, have been stripped from any cultural, religious, and social background and instrumentalized in order to assess the European cultural and historical hegemony.
By expatriating a century of modern art history, Endless Conundrum echoes the critique that Thomas McEvilley articulated against “Primitivism” in 20th-Century Art4 and questions the ideology of the Kantian aesthetic theory that champions pure form and the universality of the modernist canon. “My works are erotically explicit, shameless. I would be happy if visitors would stand in front of my work and feel a bit ashamed—ashamed because they have … simply believed in the project of modernism.”5 As she whispers these words, Walker attempts to reclaim a history, both individual and collective, that has never overcome what W. E. B. Du Bois identified as the problem of the “color line.”6
For a succinct description of the controversy—the events, the issues, and the persons involved—see “Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroes,” International Review of African American Art 14, no. 3 (1997): 3–15. ↩
The work consists of sixty-six drawings and watercolors on notebook paper and includes the artist’s musings on the controversy. ↩
Both phrases are written on pages of the work. ↩
Thomas McEvilley, “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief: ‘Primitivism’ in 20th-Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984,” Artforum 23, no. 3 (November 1984): 54–61. ↩
Kara Walker, interview with Samuel Herzog, “Die schwartze Seele wird von der Moderne verbraucht,” Basler Zeitung, June 9, 2001, 55. Trans. Lynn Dierks. ↩
See W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903). ↩