Kara Walker’s art

Kara Walker - The Renaissance Society

Presenting Negro Scenes Drawn Upon My Passage
Through the South and
Reconfigured for the Benefit of
Enlightened Audiences Wherever Such May
Be Found,
By Myself, Missus K.E.B. Walker,
January 12 – February 23, 1997

Picture and Text from The Renaissance Society, the University of Chicago.

Walker has an exhibit at the Whitney, in NYC, through Feb. 3. The art is often beautiful despite its exceptional portrayal of very ugly racist and sexist stereotypes. The picture above was intentionally chosen (at least in this context) to leave to readers the decision of whether to view some profoundly challenging work.  Thus:

Walker’s work is often said to appropriate and subvert stereotypes, but that might be a little misleading.  She herself at least at times takes her art to present stereotypes as they infect us all.  She is quoted by Newsday as saying, “I want people to respond and to be aware that if a goody-two-shoes like me can have all of this going on her head, then nobody’s safe.”

She has been very controversial; though she has been awarded a McCarthur “genius” award, she was sharply criticized by some African Americans as promulgating negative stereotypes, perhaps even to get money from bigots.  Her comments on presenting positive images of black people are again quoted by Newsday:

Walker, for her part, questioned the very notion of a positive black image: “Every image produced of ‘us’ is mediated – filtered through the grounds of years of misrepresentation, bitterness and suspicion,” she scrawled on one of the beautifully illustrated diary pages on display at the Whitney. She doesn’t think it’s possible to mold new, untainted forms. We can only deconstruct those that already exist and uncover their ongoing corruption.

She’s a feminist you might want to know more about.

9 thoughts on “Kara Walker’s art

  1. Despite the Whitney’s warning sign, some people were talking children into the exhibit. I would think it is a mistake to take any young person into it unless they’re old enough to cope with the idea that sex can be very cruel and exploitative.

  2. I’m a hesitant, ambivalent fan of Kara Walker’s work, but have yet to see it “in person” (we covered her in an undergrad art history course on race and representation). I’m looking forward to seeing the exhibit when I’m in NYC next week, and of seeing my reaction to it then.

  3. Please let us know what you think.

    There are videos that I found very difficult to watch. It was hard to watch the actions that could surround the scenes in her still images.

    I think she may raise some important questions for academic feminists about ourselves, but I’m not sure. It might be fun/interesting/dangerous/sickening to do for stereotypes of the white female philosophy professor what she’s done for various black stereotypes.

  4. Can you explain a little more what you mean? I’m sure you don’t mean that white female phil profs deal with anything like the degree of horrendous stereotypes that blacks do…

  5. Thanks, Jender, for asking. No, nothing anywhere near as bad, obviously, though perhaps with some exceptions. At least in the States, lesbians, bi’s and trans women can lose their lives because of their sexuality, again to say the obvious.

    I think KW does not see her work as just about the stereotypes a “negress’ faces, and I suspect it would be a disservice to her to see her work as speaking just about the experiences of black-directed racism and sexism.

    As a first shot, if I were to ask about the significance of her work for my understanding of my life – beyond its obvious impact on how I think about black stereotypes – then I start to wonder whether I/we are really facing how we are seen. And what would it be like to get the negative images of women philosophers really embodied in public?

    Not irrelevantly, I have at times been profoundly shocked at some of the things I’ve discovered were said about me. But rather than taking it as a product of dysfunctional group dynamics, perhaps I should be thinking “of course, what else?” E.g., I was completely taken aback by discovering a former dean was describing me as a very clever liar to my former chair. But isn’t that part of the stereotype?

    Hope this makes some sense. I’ve only just started to try to sort some of this out.

  6. Just to clarify– I wasn’t denying that women face big problems, just worried that “white woman philosophy professor” is actually a pretty damned privileged position, so your comment could be misread in ways you wouldn’t want. One thing I like about KW’s art is the way it makes us reflect, painfully, on the stereotypes that are deeply imbedded not just in the culture but also in our own psyches. And you’re right to note that there are lots of others worth reflecting on, beyond the specific one KW draws from.

  7. Jender, I just deleted a comment, since I thought I was trying to address an issue that I really wasn’t getting. But i’ll take your word for it that I might be so misread. Let me emphasize that I would certainly be pretty upset to be read as failing to realize the historical and the contemporary social experiences of white academic women are generally incredibly far from that of black slaves or in general black women today.

    The question of how far apart we are on a mythic level is much more complicated, of course. Among other things, KW’s art seems to me to tap deeply into our capacity for imaginative imitation. It is hard to believe she wouldn’t realize she can set up some of her audience, however privileged, for a recognition of a common mythic background. Of course, that is only a part of what she is doing, and the videos which invite one into the details were, for me, almost too hard to watch.

    In any case, common mythic background wasn’t really what I had in mind in the first comment. It was more about the distancing that theorizing can give to stereotypes, as though they become comfortable, containable things, even if we dislike them a lot.

  8. I see nothing wrong with it. What is she supposed to do, sugar-coat it? If she directs her rage and is brutally honest about history, then so be it. We’re adults, we can handle facing our ancestors’ history and actions and learn from them.

    And no, children probably shouldn’t be allowed to see this before a certain age, because they’d be seeing the stereotypes and the lies in action.

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