Kara Walker has not lost her nerve

Of this image Darrel Pinckney observes in the forthcoming NY Review of Books

Walker’s titles set the mood, but they also set you up, and the texts of her catalogs can be intimidating in their pretended didacticism. A medium-size work done in ink and collage, Scraps, is one of the images that linger in the mind long after you have seen it. Walker shows a naked young black girl in a bonnet, with a small ax raised in her left hand. She is making off with the large head of a white man. She might even be skipping. This isn’t Judith; it’s a demented Topsy in her festival of gore. Slavery drove both the slaver and the enslaved mad and itself was a form of madness. It’s the look Walker puts in the little girl’s visible eye. Racial history has broken free and is running amuck. But even this work has a strange elegance. She is not an exorcist, is not trying to be therapeutic. It is the way she fills up her spaces. With Walker you feel that everything is placed with delicacy and each gesture conveys so much.

When Kara Walker’s art first appeared, many critics – particularly critics of color – expressed great concern that she uncritically displayed some of the worst racist clichés about black people. One would expect such voices today to be at least very mute. Rather, critics now see that she is using such images to her own ends. To say this should not merely to say tha she has appropriated these tropes. Rather, as the NY Review of books maintains:

Kara Walker’s images comprise an army of the unlikely, those grotesques and comics that white people invented in the effort to persuade themselves—and black people as well—that black people were only fit for servitude, and that they were incapable of and uninterested in revolt. Walker turns against whiteness what white people invented.

Pinckney is discussing a new show of Walker’s art and the accompanying catalogue: Kara Walker: Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season.

Black Lives Matter Is the title of Pinckney’s review. His piece gives us an eloquent account of how it could seem otherwise. Do read it.

The Remarkable Kara Walker does spring

A piece of Kara Walker’s challenging art is featured in the NYT.  If you don’t know of her work, you might like the short piece about her from the Times.  We’ve described  her work here before, and one of our  pieces has a video about her it.  She has, among other things,  heroically survived a wide-spread condemnation of  her use of racial stereotypes, as she tries to make more explicit what’s in her and our heads.

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Kara Walker’s Winter

We have said before that Kara Walker’s brilliant images present important challenges for women today thinking about the United States’ slave-holding past, and the position of women that is arguably influenced by that past. 

It is such a treat to find a new piece by her on the NY Times Op-Ed page.  I think we can legally repeat it here, and so it would be such a shame not to share it:

Kara Walkers Winter
Kara Walker's Winter

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,
Colored
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.