wed 30/09/2020

Kara Walker, Camden Arts Centre | reviews, news & interviews

Kara Walker, Camden Arts Centre

Kara Walker, Camden Arts Centre

The African American artist who calls herself a negress and powerfully addresses the horror of slavery

'Auntie Walker's Wall Sample for Civilians', 2013All images © Kara Walker. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York

American ladies, in the 18th and 19th centuries, passed their time in fashionable pursuits such as embroidering samplers and cutting out portraits of family and friends.

American ladies, in the 18th and 19th centuries, passed their time in fashionable pursuits such as embroidering samplers and cutting out portraits of family and friends. Harking back to those days, Kara Walker has covered three walls of the Camden Arts Centre with a panoramic installation of cut-paper silhouettes, which she calls Auntie Walker’s Wall Samplers (main picture and below right: Auntie Walker’s Wall Sampler for Savages). Instead of sharing genteel pleasantries, though, she dishes the dirt on the plantation-owning white elite. Her top-hatted gents and southern belles may dance and caper, but they reveal their less amiable side as they or their henchmen abuse, torture and kill the slaves they fear and despise.

The characters (or caricatures) are so brilliantly observed and so inherently comic that they create a mood of sardonic festivity

For Walker is an African American who has done her research; delving into the horrors of history, she calls herself a “negress” in solidarity with those slaves and to remind us that it takes more than a change of name to ameliorate past crimes and confer equality on black people. Slavery may have been abolished long ago, but its social and cultural residue lingers on.

Instead of heroising the victims, though, Walker portrays them as the coons, sambos, picaninnies, mammies, Uncle Toms and Jim Crows once found in American fiction and popular culture – as the stereotypes that populate her mental landscape. “My project,” she says, “is about trying to examine what it is to be an African American artist. How do you make representations of your world, given what you’ve been given?”

Her cut-outs depict rape, murder and revolt, but the characters (or caricatures) are so brilliantly observed and so inherently comic that they create a mood of sardonic festivity. Comedy is not the only weapon she deploys to deflect the rage engendered by the subject matter; she subverts the stereotypes. Aunt Jemima, a character from black and white minstrel shows whom Walker describes as “a figure of fun, of servile, non-sexed motherhood”, has become a gun-toting militant, and Topsy, the mischievous ragamuffin in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wields a large bomb as she skips along.

Having studied painting, Walker chose paper cut-outs because their second-class status seemed an appropriate reflection of the absence of black people from Western art and her own exclusion from the white, male-dominated mainstream. With their extreme simplification and stylisation, the cut-outs are reminiscent of Javanese shadow puppets; and describing them as “low rent precursors to puppets”, the artist has made the same connection.

Fall From Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale (2011, pictured below) is a shadow play filmed in her studio. It features Miss Pipi, a white Mississippi belle, who falls for and seduces a black slave. When her white suitor discovers the affair, he beats up, castrates and sets fire to the hapless slave. “The motivation for so much extravagant murder was the myth of the pure, southern white woman who needed to be protected by mob rule,” says Walker. “But I wanted to counter the caricature of the black male as an evil rapist by having a black hero.” 

The grisly story is told with such passionate aplomb that the message hits home without bludgeoning the viewer; the sex scenes are particularly convincing, which is no mean feat given that the leading roles are played by paper-thin silhouettes. The beauty of the images and the cheery, banjo-strumming soundtrack lighten the mood while intensifying the poignancy of the sorry tale.

A series of large charcoal drawings is titled Dust Jackets for the Niggerati in ironic reference to the black writers who emerged in the 1920s as part of the Harlem Renaissance. Vigorous, angry and charged with bitter humour, they remind me of War, the vitriolic etchings produced after World War I by German artist Otto Dix to express his disgust at the slaughter he witnessed. 

Whereas his leering corpses were killed by mortar fire, the man in Walker’s Prop (2010) was lynched by White Suprematists. A photograph of the corpse seated on a chair appears in James Allen’s Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. The face has been daubed with paint and the head propped up with a stick. “As well as being murdered,” Walker remarks, “he has to suffer multiple abuses – to be cut, sliced and made to look like a clown, because as an idea, the nigger can’t be done away with.” In her drawing there’s a couple having sex a few feet from the corpse. “It’s a distraction,” she says. “Perhaps they are caught up in a passion that’s equal and opposite to the murder.”

Kara Walker, still from The Daily Constitution, 2011Based on an old newspaper story, The Daily Constitution (2011, pictured left) shows a woman suspended by the neck from a Blackjack oak. A man bends the tree over, then lets it spring up to fling the woman into the air and break her neck. Walker portrays the scene as a time-lapse cartoon, depicting before and after with hideously graphic comedy. “I was making an image of something so awful it became absurd,” she explains. “It's absurd for that level of creativity to go into a murder.”

I once asked Walker if the desire to uncover the past worked like the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa. Is she confronting American history in order that the process of forgiveness can begin? “It seems to go that way,” she replied, “except that I have a trickster view. I get things out in the air and then embellish them. I think of myself as an unreliable narrator, a mistake machine.”

It’s this trickster mentality that makes her work so powerful and so poignant. Provided he was clever and funny, the king’s jester could get away with revealing truths no-one else dared whisper, and with her finely-tuned visual humour, Kara Walker gets away with murder – literally, as it were.

I have a trickster view; I think of myself as an unreliable narrator, a mistake machine

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