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'Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power' at the Crocker

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Kara Walker, honored in 2007 as one of “TIME” magazine's “100 Most Influential People in The World, Artists and Entertainers,” is known for her powerful visual narratives that explore the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. Her thought-provoking and raw approach to these issues has garnered much acclaim, especially for the manner by which she examines the psychology of slavery through fictional narratives.

Ms. Walker has described her feelings when making her work as "giddy discomfort. " Discomfort is not a strong enough word. Revulsion and shock and disgust are more accurate terms. A decade or more before Hollywood started using slavery for its exploitative value, Walker was making work that plumbed the depths of American's "peculiar institution" and mainstream society's hostile and cruel treatment to those who had been brought here forcibly from Africa to work the tobacco and cotton fields for the benefit of their white masters.

The cut-paper figures fill the walls of the gallery — silhouettes in white against deep grey and black against white. The silhouetted figures are bold and crude, a riff on all the vicious stereotypes of black people in the popular press - big lips, dreadlocks, big penises. The masters and mistresses in the show are doing unmentionable things, acts of violence whose impact will leave the thoughtful viewer shaken to the core.

At the tender age of 24, Ms. Walker made a huge splash in the art world with a mural she produced at the Drawing Center in SoHo. It was a narrative panorama with an old-fashioned title: “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.”

Black-paper silhouette figures, cut by hand and fastened to the gallery wall, portrayed the gruesome tragedy-comedy of American race relations. The effect was viscerally upsetting as Steppin' Fetchit meets Simon Legree as narrated by the KKK and Whoopie Goldberg.

At the time, Holland Cotter wrote: “Gone” was an instant hit. And placed at the beginning of the survey, “Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love,” it still packs a punch at the Whitney. The scene is set, with the sparest of linear means, on the banks of a bayou with a full black moon overhead. Under a swag of Spanish moss, a Southern belle leans toward her courtly suitor for a kiss. But something’s wrong: an extra pair of legs, thin and bare, emerges from beneath her crinoline. To whom do they belong? And what can their owner be up to under there?"

"So much for romance. Nearby a child strangles a duck and offers it to a woman whose body doubles as a boat. A second woman lifts a leg and two infants drop to the ground as if she’s defecating babies. Seen in profile, she has caricatured Negroid features, as does a man who floats in the sky above her, buoyed by balloonlike genitals. In the center of the picture, a prepubescent black girl fellates a white boy, possibly a slave-master’s son. Nearby the master is caught in a slapstick coupling with a black woman who spits out her corncob pipe in surprise."

Twenty years later (Ms Walker is now 44), and American is still divided by issues around race. Those who thought that the election of a mixed-race president would lead to quicker, positive change were sadly wrong. If anything, violence against African-American has escalated with the Zimmerman verdict providing a "legal" reason for those who want to shoot on sight and be exonerated later.

So is there any question as to why slavery, the Civil War and race relations continue to fuel Walker's art?

Walker's "Leda and the Swan" is not a Renaissance vision of romance. Leda, in the image of a black slave woman, is forced into acts of painful sexual subjugation. Other black women portrayed in the exhibit are treated in equally vicious ways - one woman is crushed beneath a hoop skirt, another woman leans against a chopping block surrounded by black skulls.

All the faces on these black silhouette figures show cartoon aspects of black faces - the protruding lips and kinky hair. There is absolutely no doubt as to who is master and who is slave. Yet other tableau do more than hint that the oppression and cruelty visited upon slaves was internalized and acted out in their behavior toward each other. In one section, a black boy threatens an infant with a sharp knife while a black man applauds. It's little black Sambo gone over to the dark side - an encyclopedia of images of "kinky" hair, thick lips, large buttocks, that we, as consumers of all kinds of popular media, are all too familiar.

Featuring 60 works drawn from the collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, the exhibition includes wall paintings, works on paper, and recent work in new media. All showcase the artist's thought-provoking approach to graphic design and content. Her use of the silhouette is especially novel, deployed in ways that confront how we shape personal identity but flatten the complex nature of others.

Influenced by historical research, literary sources, and popular culture, Walker's humor and wit come forth in unexpected juxtapositions. As race remains one of the most difficult conversations to have in America, this exhibition is especially timely amid the discourse on race today, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.


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