A Horrible, Beautiful Beast
Grace Elizabeth Hale reviews the traveling art exhibit "Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love."
ARC/ Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, France, June 20–September 9, 2007
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 11, 2007–February 3, 2008
UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, March 2–June 8, 2008
Art critics and journalists make much of the powers of subversion in Kara Walker's works, how her pieces overturn standard historical accounts of what happened in the past and add new perspectives and stories. This explanation is quite popular as a way to explain the brilliance and power of visual art and creative writing made by women of color—including Toni Morrison's fiction and Natasha Trethewey's poetry. While these artists are certainly interested in history, such explanations prove too simple. In the early twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois began carving history out of the forest of white supremacist fantasy. In the last half-century especially, artists, professional historians and other scholars have been so busy whittling away at that old standard story that today only a stump remains. Even the National History Standards, written and approved during a period of rising conservative political power, have grudgingly acknowledgeed African American history. To the extent that we have a dominant narrative now, it consists of the 'many voices and many stories' version. The old white supremacist, Lost Cause telling of the past has died and in its place sprout multiple shoots. It is exactly this new liberal standard that Kara Walker deconstructs. Her brilliance sees the ways the old white supremacist romanticism haunts and distorts the new history, too.
Just because something is dead as serious history, does not mean that it is dead. Walker, as the poet Kevin Young observes in the show's catalog, "is less an artist of history . . . than a historian of fantasy." And fantasies are as often offensive, violent, and demeaning as they are ennobling, inspirational, and empowering. The set of voices we do not want to hear, her art suggests, are not just the voices of the former objects, the stories of enslaved people once left out of history, but the voices of the abject, the people who had and still have desires that have nothing to do with uplift, self-expression, and empowerment. Their sounds sucking, moaning, screaming and sighing with the noises of the bowels and birth, of people killing and people dying. Their desires did not fit into Old South romanticism. And they do not fit into the new version of history either, with its new romanticism, its world of saintly, always resisting and yet forgiving blacks and admittedly evil and yet somehow always also atypical whites.
Kara Walker is also fantasy's geographer. The space of fantasy is a space of contradiction. Walker's most well-known method is the once-genteel art of silhouette making, a practice that was a literal part—along with a love for Sir Walter Scott's work, Greek revival homes, and courtly balls—of the way masters and mistresses worked to make a world built on the violence of slavery beautiful. Walker uses that form to show us the ugly and the sordid, to make the thick black paper reveal what it had originally been used to hide: a young slave girl sucks the penis of a young white man, a black woman slices her own wrists, blood spraying as she kicks her heels in glee, a slave man floats in the sky lifted by his own balloon-like genitals, a master cuts off the leg of a slave boy, and a slave woman sucks the cut-off leg. A Confederate soldier prepares for battle by sucking a slave woman's breast. A slave woman defecates. A slave woman gives birth. Whites and blacks are sodomized. Whites and blacks are killed. Trees shrouded in moss, cut out of paper or projected as smears of color, hem people in and hold them down or provide the limbs from which their bodies dangle. Grass spikes upward like weapons or limbs. River banks launch ships made of bodies and other horrors. Skies dance with splashes the color of blood and mud.
Kara Walker, Excavated from the Black Heart of a Negress, 2002.
But Walker's appropriation of minstrel images and characters, and particularly her reoccurring use of the Negress character, reveal a more ambitious project than a simple unveiling. Minstrelsy began as a form of popular theater in the northeastern United States after the end of slavery there. Putting on the face paint or "blacking up"—playing black men—gave white men a way to work through their own inadmissible fears and desires. It allowed them to reinvent themselves. In the post-Reconstruction South, minstrelsy enjoyed a new vogue, and by the end of the nineteenth century, a minstrelsy craze, supplemented by hit "coon songs" and advertisements for newly national products like soap that could wash even Topsy clean, raged across the nation. Black men and women, began to take up the paint as a way to reveal what they, too, could not speak—their own vision of whites' racial histories and fantasies and desires, their own vision of rebirth. Minstrelsy, as is now well documented by scholars, was foundational in the evolution of vaudeville, radio, and television programming in America. As Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled makes clear, minstrelsy's images and narratives still haunt popular culture.
Unlike the recent touring exhibitions of lynching photographs, Walker's art does not give viewers a clear sense of the victims and the victimizers, the people we are supposed to love and the people we are supposed to hate. In Walker's art, all these complicated layers of the oppressed and the repressed, old and new historical narratives, and the dreams, desires, and nightmares these histories express and deny come together. And the result is somehow shocking and sordid and ugly and yet exquisitely beautiful, too. This is not just an earlier generation of segregationist whites' monster. This is modern, multicultural America's beast. The beauty of Walker's art pulls viewers into places they may not want to go. This is our monster, too.
Grace Elizabeth Hale teaches cultural history and American Studies at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 and the forthcoming Rebel, Rebel: Why We Love Outsiders and the Effects of This Romance on Postwar American Culture and Politics. Her current research investigates the intersection of documentary filmmaking and union organizing in the US South in the 1960s and 1970s.