What strikes me as I enter into the Victoria Miro gallery in London to visit Walker’s latest exhibition is the manner in which her work both contests and utilises the space it’s in. Walker’s work, if you are unfamiliar with it, has commonly taken the form of cut-paper silhouettes (usually black paper) directly plastered onto the gallery’s walls. In this instance, the traditional white cube of the Victoria Miro is compromised as Walker charts a 420 x 1775cm tableau of black paper cut-outs, The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin, across its impossibly white walls. Littering it with images of intense violence (both sexual and racial) of otherwise traditional antebellum characters. Throughout her work and in this particular piece, Walker challenges the often romanticised imagery of the Old South, disrupting the quotidian depiction of this historical period in America. Here the white male on horseback is present, but he is now seen penetrating a Black male or female with a sword, who are in turn depicted through anthropomorphic stereotypes (ironically racist, a deliberate suggestion of “minstrels and blackface”, as Walker noted of her work to the Guardian in 2013).
Often art depicting the antebellum is done as large oil-on-canvas pieces and usually neglects the presence of Black Americans. The epic proportions of Walker’s work seemingly allude to the traditions of oil-on-canvas paintings, though she reverses the common depictions found within it, therefore rupturing these traditions. Walker’s own chosen medium is also essential to her work; she initially wanted to be a painter like her father (oil-on-canvas particularly) as there is, she says, something of a “masculine power” to it. After all, when one thinks of great Renaissance paintings, they are nearly always by male painters and mostly always of this medium. Perhaps because of this (Walker remarks that she felt uncomfortable with this medium after many attempts), she instead opts for the cut-paper silhouettes. Not only is it a further reversal and interruption of the oil-on-canvas and its “masculine power”, but by using this silhouette form and putting it directly onto the gallery wall,Walker alludes to something of a cave-painting tradition, of primitivism. Something she continually gestures to and re-appropriates throughout her work.
The form of 40 Acres of Mules is a prime example of this nod to primitivism, using charcoal on paper as the medium. However, in this case, it’s the composition that intrigues more rather than the medium: the mesh of bodies on top of one and other, the micro-events within the piece, the apparition of faces, the animals present; I am reminded of Picasso’s Guernica. This comparison may not be as tenuous as you think, considering Walker’s many allusions here to the American Civil War, much like Guernica refers to the Spanish Civil War. Like The Jubilant Martrys of Obsolescence and Ruin and Picasso’s Guernica, 40 Acres of Mules mocks this period of history. Walker mentions in an interview of the glorification of the Civil War, how many Americans like to play dress-up and recreate it. One can only think Walker is doing the same, but in her version, the black American is also present and the realities more bleak. Once again, the traditional characters of America history are given a primitive twist: Confederate soldiers rape stark naked Black women, KKK figures appear menacing and ethereal in confined paces; Black males are being lynched, their penis’ ever present; donkeys and horses fight nonsensically. However, rooting Walker’s work in a specific historical moment may also be wrong of us, the illusion that her work is of a certain period is exactly that: an illusion, a ruse. The genius of Walker’s work, and this exhibition in particular, is that is transcends the historical moment. A nod to one point in history is a suggestion of the current state of affairs.
This is even more apparent in the exhibition space downstairs, which displays her Four Idioms series, as well as a collection of individual works on graph paper, known as Tell me your Thoughts on Police Brutality Miss ‘Spank Me Harder’ (what I love most about Walker’s work is her ability to take an intensely serious subject such as racism and create pieces that are both nightmarish and humorous). Four Idioms on Negro Art #4 Primitivism, depicts the figure of a policeman in riot gear, his foot placed on the skull of man, who in turn is being ridden by the shape of a black women being suckled by another man. Yet stripped of his riot gear, the law enforcer could be from any era. Considering the narrative thread running the entirety of the exhibition, Walker here and throughout seems to didactically (and correctly) suggest that state violence against Black Americans has systematically been ever-present. The linkage between old and contemporary American history runs through many of the small illustrations of Tell me your Thoughts… too, whose titles depict their topic, such ‘An Unarmed Black Man’ and ‘Pull My Hair’. These are issues that are present every day for Black Americans in the twenty-first century, occurring daily and discussed online equally as much, but as Walker’s exhibition shows, they are injustices that are rooted deeply in American history.
Kara Walker was born in Stockton, California in 1969 and new resides in New York. At the age of 27 she became the second youngest recipient of the highly prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. Selected solo exhibitions include: Camden Arts Centre, London (2013); Art Institute of Chicago (2013); Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw (2011). In 2007-2008 the artist was the subject of the major retrospective ‘Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love’ at the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, which then toured across numerous institutions.
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Rohan Rice is a writer and photographer who graduated from the University of Kent. His writing covers a range of topics including, but not limited to: race, gender, contemporary art, literature, politics, film, and football. You can find both his writing and photography at: rohanpages.wordpress.com. Twitter: @RohanRice
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