“My works are erotically explicit, shameless. I would be happy if visitors would stand in front of my work and even feel a little ashamed because they have … simply believed in the project of modernism.” –Kara Walker, 2001
Kara Walker’s work, done in the style of silhouette portraits widely popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, has focused on an exploration of the history of slavery and of black-white race relations in the United States. Endless Conundrum, An African Anonymous Adventuress represents an expansion of this subject matter, adding an examination of the role of African tribal motifs in the genesis of modern art. These motifs played a crucial but undercredited role in Western art’s move from realism to conceptual and expressive representation and in the work of such artists as Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and Alberto Giacometti. (Brancusi’s sculpture Endless Column is referenced in the title.) While the influence of African sculpture has been disputed in the case of this work, Walker clearly indicated that the debate is absurd.
Commissioned by the Fondation Beyeler, a Swiss museum that exhibits African tribal sculptures alongside modernist works of art, Walker’s piece asks us to examine the issue in the context of other problematic appropriations of blackness in Western culture. She portrays key works from the Beyeler’s collection, including a nail fetish and Rodin’s Iris, alongside African-American performer Josephine Baker, who is dancing her way out of the “exotic” banana skirt that made her famous. A resounding homage to the creativity of African and African-American cultures, Walker’s work highlights the power dynamics behind the cultural exchanges, appropriations, and combinations that are part of our society today.