Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.

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Missus Kara E. Walker: Emancipated, and On Tour

Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, February 17-May 13, 2007

Philippe Vergne and Sander L. Gilman et al., Kara Walker: MY Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, exh. cat. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2007. 432 pp., 250 color ills, 60 b/w. $49.95

"I see black people," in stark white letters against a solid black background, reads the slogan for TV One, a television network that targets African American viewers. This empowering testament to black spectatorship and visibility has appeared boldly on buses and billboards in a number of American cities in recent years, (1) "seeing black people" is at the crux of the work of thirty-eight-year-old Kara Walker and its reception. With silhouettes cut from black paper, Walker plumbs the symbolic depths of blackness and makes everyone black (Fig. 1). Black people seeing black people, white people seeing black people, whites and blacks seeing black people together, whites seeing themselves seeing black people.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

In one installment of these advertisements, the Martin Lawrence Show is featured: "I see black people--laughing." Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, and many other black comedians have weathered on going criticism that their work just perpetuates the stereotypes blacks detest. The success of their work and that of a blockbuster movie genre that offers up an array of African American hustlers, jezebels, bug-eyed buffoons, and obese female grotesques (often portrayed by men in drag). especially among African Americans, indicate a deep ambivalence that contemporary American audiences have about controlling negative stereotypes as acceptable entertainment. Visiting a Walker exhibition engages as similar tangled web of spectatorship and complicity between the artist and her audiences. For example, the title of the most recent survey of Walker's work, Kara Walker, My Complement, My Enemy. My Oppressor, My Love, alludes to this problem by highlighting the artist's relationship to her art, her audience, her critics, her collectors and her lovers by folding them back in on her own selfhood, Organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, an institution that has activity collected and exhibited Walker's work since the mid-1990s, the exhibition appeared in four other venues: Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and Fort Worth. (2)

And this is where one should begin to think about what a midcareer retrospective at one of the most important national museums means when the artist featured is a black woman who is yet to turn forty. Especially because Kara Walker makes work that people love to hat and hate to love. In large part she has built her great success, which includes a MacArthur Fellowship (or "genius grant") and seventeen years of exhibitions, by casting an unflinching eye on the most unpleasant aspects of racism and sexism in American history. Her signature style inverts the Victorian sentimental art of the silhouette with large-scale installations of delicately cut black figures against stark white walls that act out depraved narratives of exploitation and oppression set in the antebellum South (Fig. 1). It is the tension between opposites, between expectations and reality that has fueled, crowned, and damned Walker's images and their reception. These works allude to everything from nineteenth-century American panorama paintings, to contemporary romance novels, to the prints of Francisco de Goya. Her blending of fact and fiction, including a confounding alter ego, the sometimes ruthless, sometimes pitiful "Negress" who recurs throughout the work, has created such controversy that the artists Betye Sarr and Howardena Pindell initiated a boycott of Walker's work in 1997. Subsequently, due to their inflammatory nature, some of the artist's works have been removed from view at museums. (3)

The black people Walker shows us are defiant and degenerate, elegant and evil, confrontational and conforming. They are aware of this complex history of looking in which they perform and we stare. Numerous critical race scholars, from Frantz Fanon and Stuart Hall to Toni Morrison and Eric Lott, have outlined the centrality of the black subject, real and performed, in the history of spectatorship during the modern ear. (4) Most recently, Michael Hatt and Charmaine A. Nelson provided a wealthy of information on how the viewing of the sculpted black body engaged complex hegemonic relationships in both art and culture in the nineteenth century, all informed by the hypervisibility of the enslaved African and that she or he symbolized. As Hatt writes,

The Negro is reduced to the morphology of the body and no more. Sambo has no will of his own; his interests are identical with those of his master, and the possibility of black agency disrupting this situation does not arise. Embodiment is, strangely perhaps, a dehumanizing gesture. The body is not measured, probed, and analyzed in order to animated the object of anthropology, but to petrify it in ideological rock. (5)

Nelson sums up the catalytic role of the gaze, following Laura Mulvey, in this way: "This Foucauldian notion of the gaze and its power drives to the heart of colonialism, revealing the regulation of identity that is both social and psychic." (6)

The auction block of the transatlantic slave trade became one of the main forums for this relationship between multiracial viewers and black bodies. The ubiquitous prints of slave auctions clearly exemplify this hierarchy. Looking and being seen are central to such images as Une vente des Negres from 1836 that depicts a slave auction in Martinique (Fig. 2). In this composition, two white male buyers inspecting a half-nude African woman for purchase grab her arm and leg. Another seminude female holding her naked infant has her teeth probed by a well-heeled whit woman white her own nicely dressed black servant shelters her mistress from the hot sun with an umbrella. A young child, clearly of European descent, watches and carefully learns an important skill for her future as a proprietor of humans. A throng of buyers waiting their turn is seen as the auctioneer and owner look on.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

As Walter Johnson explains in his ground-breaking study of antebellum slave markets and how the interactions there reflected fundamental aspects of selfhood for both whites and blacks:

Even as the traders packaged their slaves, "by feeding them up," oiling their bodies and dressing them in new clothes, they were forced to rely on the slaves to sell themselves, to act as they had been advertised to be. The stakes were high, for their identities as masters and mistresses, planters and paternalists, hosts and hostesses, slave breakers and slave predators were all lived through the bodies of people who could be bought and sold in the market. As so the questions the buyers asked and the examinations they made were also answers, accounts of their origins and intentions. (7)

Most of Walker's work engages this interdependence of black-white identity formation, along with the centrality of performance and deceit in the process. Such "double" silhouettes as Cut and Burn, both from 1998, have been compared to Rorschach blots, Giuseppe Arcimboldo's imaginative portraits, and Surrealist visual plays. Walker's figures prove that no representation can be trusted, especially those constructed about oneself. In Cut, a joyful jig is a suicide in which exuberant decorative spirals are really arterial spurts. In Burn, a puff of smoke conceals a woman's profile and a graveyard. Walker offers another source of tension between ambiguity and vivid clarity with her use of the black silhouette that forces viewers to determine the race of her figures through such fallible markers as physiognomy and dress. Throughout this review, black and white figures are identified as such based on this privileged, African American academic's racial and class assumptions evoked by Walker's deployment of "types."

Black People Seeing White People Seeing Black People ...

Walker's large-scale tableaux, such as Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and her Heart, 1994, and Darkytown Rebellion, 2001, are painful and beautiful (Fig. 1). In Darkytown Rebellion, the artist presents a slave uprising. A procession to the right includes an enthusiastic flag-waving black woman and two young children reaching to get another flag from an African American male dandy dressed in tails. However, a handful of tragic figures tempers this jubilation. A muscular black man strides confidently, despite his severed kg. The dangling tendons of the amputation visually play off his erect penis. A seemingly injured nude black woman spitting out teeth crawls through a pool of blood beside the severed head of one of her children; another child rides on her back, and a third sits in front of her. The projected image extends the red pool onto the gallery floor so as to inhabit the field of the viewer. In the middle of the image is a European American woman in a hoopskirt bludgeoning a young child whose features have been obscured by the blows. This ambiguity allows one to read the child as either black or white, one of the rebelling slaves or one of her own, articulating how endemic the violence of oppression can be. Victims become aggressors only to be victimized once again. The stories thwart the viewers' need for satisfaction or resolution because Walker wants us never to forget that history repeats itself and that love and hate are inextricable when it comes to sex and race in the United States.

Walker's victims and perpetrators linger in the mind's eye long after one averts one's gaze. In this way, seeing her work is much like viewing a solar eclipse, with its contrast between the blackness of the passing moon and the gleaming, white-hot edges of the covered...

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