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Silhouettes and Stereotypes

By Kathy Halbreich

Kara Walker’s purposefully provocative and seductively graphic work is difficult. It confounds, and sometimes offends. In addressing the concerns of some viewers, I’ve tried to convey that part of our mission as a cultural institution is to represent many different value systems, to give space, alongside more familiar or palatable expressions, to the unfamiliar, the invisible, the unspeakable, and the contested. One of the reasons this is desirable is that it helps to partially collapse the near and far, the yours and mine, by hanging a stranger’s world vision next to a neighbor’s, allowing the recognizable to lead to a glimpse of something never seen before but containing some common DNA. The purpose is, in part, to eliminate the exoticization, and sometimes eroticization, of difference. Like history itself, it is possible, then, that a single exhibition, a single artwork, can prompt both deep pleasure and sharp pain, depending on each participant’s perspective, disposition, knowledge, and background.

When I look at Kara Walker’s work, I see adamantly two-dimensional images—images pinned and flattened in a rejection of Renaissance space. I see figures made out of cheap materials and devalued methods of craft, rejecting the heroic (and often male) swipe of the loaded brush and the permanence of canvas. I see black bodies in radically unsentimental postures, exposing themselves to our gaze and exposing the whites of the walls, the edges of which, unlike those of a canvas, cannot be grasped without turning left or right. Our bodies are implicated. The picture’s stinging punch, so frequently followed by the slightly nauseating fear that rises with the recognition of one’s own voyeurism, derives from the maker’s delight in detail and the fairness with which she anchors her anger equally in every character’s position—white and black, master and slave.

I observe in Walker’s visual lexicon a world I’ve never seen quite so explicitly: a pictorial vision in which everyone is a mere silhouette of self, a profile drained of facture or flesh, pushed flat and up against the wall. Though exquisitely drawn and surgically cut—Walker’s technique is gorgeous—these figures are not fully formed human beings or articulated figures of artistic speech. As Walker has remarked, “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that’s also what the stereotype does. So I saw the silhouette and the stereotype as linked.” This mating of means and message—a postwar trope that pushed illusionism out of abstract painting—is therefore updated, as it had to be, to confront and contain content. And while Walker is the mistress of multiple histories and color theories, the medium she chooses so often, the one she is so closely tied to, is the black paper silhouette—black being the color of all colors combined. This mother of all colors results from repeated intimacies that once upon a time (but not so long ago) were illegal, turning the word “miscegenation” foul. And, astonishingly, in 1959 it was still possible for a Virginia judge to jail an interracial couple for marrying, using a warped religious reasoning that recalls some of the heated opposition to gay marriage today: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” This decision was overturned in 1967 by a unanimous ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court.

These, of course, were the years when the Civil Rights movement gained momentum. The black-and-blue, bruised hopes of a generation were on my mind when I read, in 1997, some of the damning letters and articles, many written by African American artists, which circulated after Walker was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant. Many of these artists were women who had come of age at a time when the mantra “Black Is Beautiful” along with anthems such as James Brown’s “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud” reflected necessary and widely disseminated alternatives to the pervasiveness and persistency of demeaning stereotypes largely fabricated by the white majority. By claiming self-definition over assimilation, those battling for equality in the 1960s and 1970s abandoned the ambiguity of their status in society to forge a collective faith in possibility, a belief in redemption. Against this backdrop, it’s possible to understand why a generation of older artists, who worked exceedingly hard to be heard, might want to silence one of their young, particularly a woman who spoke openly of her relationships with white men and irreverently embraced the ugliest of stereotypes to portray a “continuity of conflict” that challenged the optimism of a belief in “overcoming.” They complained that Walker’s views on slavery, as depicted in her work, were twisted and not inspirational; branding her naïve, they worried that the white establishment had adopted her because it served their racist ends.

But Walker’s relentless visions reflect the “endless conundrum” (to borrow the title of one her murals) of racism and the myriad ways in which it shapes a young artist’s distrust of the conventional histories of painting and cinema as well as slavery. How is an artist to make anything out of today’s transgressions, which are a continuation of yesterday’s? Certainly, Walker’s adoption of a watchful, skeptical, and almost mechanical detachment results in a Warholian strategy of inversion. For example, when asked how others understand her use of words such as “Negress,” Walker responds, “Well, [there are] lots of sophisticated people who get very amused by this back-handed insult to myself, which is, of course, always how black people get really successful.”

Walker’s pictures hurt me because they suggest an often whitewashed story lifted from my own history, an American history, which is so full of both psychological and physical violence that, ultimately, both the powerful and the powerless were (and still are) contaminated by it. The nasty fact is that power relationships, in Walker’s hands, are far from constant and flip-flop across lines of color as well as gender. She succinctly represents the sadomasochistic sickness in the master-slave relationship in her 2005 film 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker, when the little girl says, “Sometimes I pretend the world is upside down. I think he’s going to hurt me. I wonder what it will feel like.”

As a museum director, citizen, and mother, I want to believe that increased knowledge and empathy can lead to tolerance—to profoundly understanding something unfamiliar—but Walker’s work won’t allow me such a luxury. And yet, as unforgiving as it is, her work, stripped of happy endings and easy answers, favors liberation over any ideology, even a benign one. In a quiet voice, she might say that her narratives are a radical condensation of a faith in shadows, or in “becoming.” Today, when rape and sexual intimidation remain the currency of the powerful in places such as Darfur and Iraq and on our own front pages, it’s better to live in a zone of grays, a place where it’s possible to try to speak of and question images you don’t immediately understand.

—Kathy Halbreich, Director

Adapted from the Foreword to the exhibition catalogue, available in the Walker Shop.

Kara Walker, Testimony, 2004

16mm film and video transferred to DVD, black and white, silent; 8:49 min.
Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Clinton and Della Walker Acquisition Fund, 2004

Photo courtesy Walker Art Center