Kara Walker’s Nightmares Are Our Own

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Arts & Culture

Kara Walker, Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might Be Guilty of Something), 2017. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Last night, they scaled my walls as I slept. The silhouettes moved closer—paralyzing me—with each flash of yellow light from the street. Some of them danced forward on toe, some ran, others fiddled in place with their shovels, their ropes and lanterns, their dangling snakes, torches, sickles. I didn’t know if they were after me, or if they wanted me to join their brigade. I thought then that I might and suddenly I too was wielding an axe, I too was sneaking along the edges of my room. Not me exactly, but my shadow, elongated with sinister intent. My teeth were long; I could feel them reaching my chin. There was a mirror and in it I saw a drooling beast, me. I woke up.

I doubt this dark dream was caused solely by Kara Walker’s show, but it was certainly  related. “SIKKEMA JENKINS AND CO. IS COMPELLED TO PRESENT THE MOST ASTOUNDING AND IMPORTANT PAINTING SHOW OF THE FALL ART SHOW VIEWING SEASON!” is on until October 14, at the Sikkema Jenkins gallery, on Twenty-Second and Tenth Avenue. I moved to New York three years ago, at the very minute the Domino sugar plant was to be demolished, just missing Walker’s Marvelous Sugar Baby. People seemed to almost enjoy saying it was gone, as if they’d taken a brick of it themselves, then licked all the molasses off. I’d waited a long time for Walker’s next work.

I rushed through two grisly, oil-slicked linens wanting to first orient myself by Christ’s Entry into Journalism, which I’d read a lot about. It’s a sixteen-foot-by-eleven-foot sumi ink and collage on paper. It immediately recalls Rodin’s Gates of Hell. It can be looked at from any place, but center is best. I took my chance in the crowd. My eyes flitted from the plated head of Trayvon Martin to a woman being raped, from a lynching to Frederick Douglass. There was an American flag in the corner of my vision. I examined a mummified body being carried by Batman. It was that of Emmett Till, dressed for his coffin. There was a man praying and a Confederate soldier pointing his gun, or was he a Union soldier? His arm was broken. There was Donald Trump between the legs of a klansman. There was a lady, a dancer, a drunkard; violence, sex, rage. Was this the ghoulish cast of American history? Yes. No, it was the chorus. It was already enough to think about. But Walker was telling a story I wanted to hear.

Images vile, desperate, solemn come back to me now. They are fetid. Black people—gently brushed to life—running from ropes and impaled on branches. A white man being strapped down and disemboweled by women and a child; a boat being swallowed by utter black; a three-headed snake. The one I’m trying to fend off—two white men sharing a naked, headless black woman, a dagger in her belly—keeps pushing to the front. I can see why some, namely black, people are enraged by these sordid, wicked depictions. They are not triumphant.

Never mind vanity. Viewing this art is enraging because, to be sure, there are people here viewing it in ignorance. I overheard some of them. To be an artist depicting white and black power, sex, and violence is no small burden. But I have the sense that Walker creates her work despite the categorizations such a weight might impose.

This could be a betrayal. “The illusion is that it’s simply about a particular point in history, and nothing else,” Walker said in a 2003 episode of an Art21 series. Calling it a “ruse,” she said she employs the antebellum characters “to approach the complexities of my own life by distancing myself and finding a parallel in something prettier and more genteel, like that picture of the old south that’s a stereotype.” But as a result of our political age, that distance may now be much shorter, the resonance of her work much deeper, her responsibility greater.

Responsibility to whom? As Walker accumulated artistic acclaim, America was propelled into its reckoning. And in her decades of imagining and re-imagining herself, Walker has done the same with America–owner and slave, sugar, sharecropper, their burden and their folly and their descendants. This may be the reason the exhibition features just one antebellum silhouette cutout, her signature medium. The slow creep of those anonymous figures in her work awakened more vibrant, detailed monsters. The characters are drawn from our American psyche almost playfully then frozen into grim scenes and haunted forests, where we left them. Let us look here at what we buried in our terror. Let us see that it is ourselves, and bump shoulders with other people doing the same, Walker suggests. Then you’re free to go.

I do not know why or how Walker creates what she does. Critics have described her as fearless. But what is on display here is fear: fear whispered and shuddered, manipulated, loaded, recoiled and released. Black and white are two American worlds, and each world’s idea of the other is, as Walker said more than a decade ago, “loaded with our deepest psychological perversions and fears and longings.” She draws them out and sets them down. Over decades. She builds the mirrors, it is we who make out the reflection.

The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (After Delacroix, Kienholz) (detail), 2017. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

It is turbulent, ugly. The exhibition made me think of ancestors, female ancestors, because they are the most brutally disempowered here and the most brutal in return. Walker is questioning power, stealing it back if she has to.  A small ink and collage in the back room comes to mind, of an aloof black girl in a bonnet, an axe raised in her left hand, holding the frozen-in-horror decapitated head of a man. So does a melancholy portrait of a naked girl sitting alone, “The Laundress (is Done).” Then there are the characters cut out of black in the one silhouette work, Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something). Mothers and their babies, playing, dripping, feeding. I could not recognize them, obscure as the figures of a shadowbox.

“The silhouette lends itself to avoidance of the subject,” Walker once said of her signature medium. “You know, not being able to look at it directly.” Now, she is  mixing this intent with graphic works. The anonymous cutouts, those black figures who seemed at first to tickle then began to itch. They work at you and soon you cannot help but pick at them. The resulting collages, drawings and paintings are, I suspect, the scab.

In her much-discussed artist’s statement (“I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of “having a voice” or worse “being a role model.”), and despite her reluctance, it’s clear Walker cannot entirely forsake her role– it’s that of the Artist. She writes of white supremacy: “…in how many ways will the racists among our countrymen act out their Turner Diaries race war fantasy combination Nazi Germany and Antebellum South – states which, incidentally, lost the wars they started, and always will, precisely because there is no way those white racisms can survive the earth without the rest of us types upholding humanity’s best, keeping the motor running on civilization, being good, and preserving nature and all the stuff worth working and living for?” Walker has tumbled into the contemporary melee with the rest of us, but with the unique advantage of visibility. Whether she wants us to or not, we’re listening.

To the right of Slaughter is a historical tale, an allegory of retribution and death, or chaos. The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (After Delacroix, Kienholz) takes its form from Romanticism and perhaps from McKinney, Texas, where in 2015 a black teenager was thrown to the ground at a pool party and forcefully sat on by a white policeman. This piece, about ten feet tall and wide, shows a naked white man, bound and pulled by ropes at his feet, being unceremoniously gutted. The bikini-clad girl pinning his arm down is both sorrowful and committed. Nearby, a hooded black man with a white man draped over his shoulders wields a dagger. He points the blade at another, naked black man, as if taking instruction. A woman is stabbed, another farther up does the stabbing. To the left, a man disinterested. To the right, a man forlorn.

I underlined a line of Walker’s from that Art21 video, in which she discusses the inspiration she found in reading Gone with the Wind. It was the thrill of the epic’s dichotomy, “engrossing and grotesque,” that she responded to. Or, as she put it, “wanting to be the heroine and yet kill the heroine at the same time.” This is the tension that creates that familiar sound, has the effect of a chorus. Walker depicts our racial hatred–our human tragedy–with complexities of her own, representations of herself with what she has been given, to paraphrase another comment of hers. When those representations move the viewer, when she stumbles back and lurches forward in response, what she’s been given is power.

Walker pointedly employs the black, the white, the mother, the man, the child, the powerful and powerless, the then and now, so that she can convert them. The dead become the living; the vindictive become the victims; the vindicated become the oppressors; good becomes evil, evil becomes good. It doesn’t take long to ask: Whose pain is that? Whose glory? Whose reflection? Mine.

Selin Thomas is a writer based in New York.

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