The Whitney Museum of American Art’s current survey of the prolific and controversial artist Kara Walker is not a quiet exhibition. The piercing work has the capacity to stun its audience into silence by delving below the surface of social acceptability surrounding the uncomfortable topic of race and sexuality. Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, which runs through February 3rd, takes a slice of Southern segregation and feeds a bitter truth to its audience. The highly intrusive cut-paper silhouettes create a world where ethnic features are grossly exaggerated, unspoken desires are explored, and even children are sexualized.
Spanning a decade, the survey encompasses a wide array of Walker’s art, including her sizeable installations of black silhouettes, drawings both large and small, colorful projections, and silent film. The exhibit begins with the original piece that won her both fame and condemnation, Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994). At first glance the imagery is startlingly beautiful and romantic, using a cartoon-like rendering of form. On closer inspection, one realizes that this is no ordinary old-time panorama: a slave girl with exaggerated “Negroid” features fellates an adolescent white male, a slave boy with the same exaggerated physical treatment floats in the air above, carried by his swollen genitalia. Black men and women are caricatured by their nappy hair, large lips and buttocks, pendulous breasts, and other antiquated stereotypical features that are still recognizable as African American in the psyche of the most viewers. These same undercurrents carry through to the rest of the artist’s work in the exhibition, which emphasizes difference and invokes inspection of surviving unconscious racial prototypes.
For its largely white audience, it is difficult for the topic of race to remain invisible during the time that they inhabit the third floor of the museum. Walker’s silhouettes mean to provoke, to humiliate, to titillate, and to create dialogue. The exhibition is quite possibly the largest survey of an American artist solely devoted to confronting racial tensions using unambiguously brazen methods. The stereotypical, outdated, and utterly politically incorrect imagery targets the most insidious type of racism underlying contemporary culture: a liberalism that glosses over racial difference in favor of promoting a “we are all one” mentality. The danger in this utopian and naïve approach is that we do not all share the same experience regarding race. Racism still exists, however unrecognizable it may be in the minds of most whites. Walker’s body of work aims to remind its viewer of this fact.
Upon wandering through the Whitney’s cinematic galleries, it was observable that most people did not approach the larger-than-life shadows on the walls: they stood at a safe distance, too afraid to move or make a sound that would indicate their own personal involvement as either the oppressor or the oppressed. Discussions about the work were kept to a low murmur, if they occurred at all. The only audible comment during an hour-plus stay on the third floor was from a small child who very loudly asked his mom, “Is this about black people again?” when entering the room that contained Walker’s video 8 Possible Beginnings: or, The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005). The sixteen-minute story is one of the most successful works in the show, activating the hand-cut silhouettes with strings and other moving parts. The eight parts of the film feature grotesque lynching scenes and an arsenal of crude sexual encounters, mostly between African American slaves and white slave owners. Walker explores sexual desire even further by adding a new homoerotic dimension to her work, with scenes in which a male slave is impregnated and fellated by his master. Another noteworthy addition is the inclusion of the artist in the video, who can be seen holding the strings of the puppets at a few different moments. The voice of her young daughter is also included, saying disturbing and somewhat disjointed comments such as, “I wish I were white,” and, “I think he’s going to hurt me. I wonder what it will feel like.”
It is apparent that Walker’s art does not address race in isolation, but in an explicit combination with sexuality and desire. In particular, Walker’s work reveals her own obsessions with and explorations of sexuality and interracial desire. The title of the exhibition, stated from the first person, clearly personalizes the art as an individual interpretation of race and sex. Walker is not attempting to represent every African American; she rejects such tokenization in favor of a self-posed, complicated, and rhetorical questioning of her own unique experience in relation to her inherited history as an African American.
Walker’s transparent approach has proved to be too polarizing for many viewers, including a plethora of prominent black artists and leaders, such as Betye Saar. For many, however, the in-your-face tactic reopens a much needed discussion on race in an environment where the topic is marginalized by a (white) consensus that all is well on the Western front. Through her art, Walker points out that, contrary to the misconception of many folks of Caucasian heritage, discussing and recognizing race is not racist. Ignoring its existence, however, is indicative of a pervasive and internalized prejudice.
No matter the pigmentation of your skin, Walker’s art is meant to make your cheeks turn red and your skin get hot. It is this state of being exposed and vulnerable that her art hopes to exploit. There is no right or wrong reaction to the highly personal yet universally provoking work. The most important response is that it creates dialogue about race, relations, sexuality, and their intersections in a culture that normally shies away from such discussions. Since Walker has been extensively covered in the press (both within and outside of the art world) over the past decade and a half, it is apparent that her art has succeeded in fulfilling this purpose. With a long career ahead of her, it will be interesting to see what direction the faux-minstrel show will head. The curtain has not fallen for this art-world darling, and perhaps it never will.