The Oppression of Negritude

walker-excavatingIf you think that because in 2008 in America we finally have a gentleman of color and a woman who have realistic shots at the Presidency, we've buried the bloody hatchets of racism and sexism, then you must see the simultaneously exhilarating and harrowing exhibit Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.

Kara Walker, the young (a year shy of 40) African-American artist who is rapidly gaining fame and notoriety with her expansive and jarring silhouettes of larger-than-life scenarios from the antebellum South, is making waves, both positive and negative, with creations that slam the senses as they depict scenes of conflict, exhilaration, power wielding, and sexual reverie in the context of racial discrimination and gender bias.

These huge, sweeping cycloramas, or "paintings in the round," as they are called, cover circular walls and surround the viewer as they tell stories -- stories of master/slave sexual comminglings, the perpetuation of injustice, power mongering, terror and trickery on the plantation, and which render both playfulness and despair -- a hard combination to pull off with aplomb -- but Walker succeeds at this feat and takes it a step further: what initially appear to be amusing images turn into Uncle Remus nightmares.

Because of the nature of the black-and-white cutouts, one doesn't always realize what one is looking at immediately, but then it hits -- big time. Black decapitated heads lie beneath the feet of smiling whites. Slave children fellate their masters. Fecal matter drips from hunched figures and women drag their newborns across the ground by their still attached umbilical cords. A newborn is ripped from its mother ("Excavated from the Black Heart of a Negress," 2002, detail above). With such titles as Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery or "Life at 'Ol' Virginny's Hole' (sketches from Plantation Life)" See the Peculiar Institution as never before! All cut from black paper by the able hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and leader in her Cause (an 85-foot-long cyclorama) and Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, these images, made from cut paper and attached with adhesive to the wall, elicit chuckles and snickers -- they are anxiety-producing and create nervous laughter. If viewers didn't laugh, they might cry.

In addition to these grand works and smaller silhouettes, the exhibit contains other mediums with which Walker works: she films stick-driven cutout "puppets" which engage in various eye-opening activities. A real jaw-dropper, "8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker" (2005) tells the story of slaves being taken away by boat (many are pitched overboard), then devoured by an enormous mouth, after which they are defecated onto the Southern plantation where they become enslaved cotton-pickers. But this finality is no ordinary ol' Dixie scene: a black male slave becomes great with child (yes, you read that accurately) after fornicating with his white master. In this project, Walker's daughter does a voiceover and states, "I wish I was white." The films and some of her stationary works have a minstrel feel, and Walker has repeatedly come under attack from her black colleagues and others for "perpetuating the exploitation of racial stereotypes" and contributing to the problem rather than attempting to move past it. As with so much effective art, the personal becomes the political, and Walker's work is no exception in this regard.

In adjacent rooms, Walker's "slave narratives" line the walls, such as "Letter from a Black Girl" (1998) -- here text and context are everything. Walker also includes pen and ink and colored pencil on paper drawings and collages that are as comical as they are sinister, and are welcome additions to the larger, encapsulating works on display.

One effective and unusual technique Walker uses is backlighting with colored lights behind some of the large murals and smaller illustrations, thus incorporating the shadow of the viewer into the work itself and forcing the past to merge with the present. It doesn't get more real than that.

I had the good fortune of being able to sit on an interview with Kara Walker conducted by Gary Garrels, the chief curator of the Hammer Museum. A slim, quirky woman with an incredible sense of humor and both a social and personal awareness, Walker did not seem to be completely at ease in the spotlight but was self-contained and affable nonetheless. Relaxedly stretched out with Converse sneakers visible, she discussed depicting "exchanges of power" in her work, "no definites," "the unexpected, the unpredictable, and non-specific," and "being the heroine and wanting to kill the heroine" simultaneously. She stated that her work "deals with watery ambivalence."

Walker said that she chose to "stick to New World themes and America" for the time being rather than making Africa a focus in her work. Born in Stockton, California in 1969, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia with her father and began having dreams involving the KKK. This was around the same time of the infamous Atlanta child murders, and they understandably had a profound effect on her. In addition, she said she experienced some life-altering "high school moments" and "cultural language shifts" which eventually worked their way into her artistic vision, and included presenting "the black experience as real or imagined," by blacks and whiles alike. For now, Walker chooses to create "American mythologies for the larger aim."

As an art student in the early 1990s (she graduated from the Atlanta College of Art with a BFA in 1991 and earned an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994), Walker began working on the concept of black female construction and created large oil works. She felt "a relationship to Europe and untrained artists there" and was interested in "visual culture about self-definition," "devalued art," and "written, truth-calling slave narratives."

One particularly striking cutout titled "Cut" (1998) shows a young black woman appearing to jump for joy, hands held high. Only moments later does the viewer realize the girl is holding a razor and has slit her wrist in an angry gesture of self-mutilation. Walker described this act as "the ultimate revolt," saying, "rebellion rids the master of his property." She went on to describe her artistic influences: early American colonial art and the romance novel of antebellum South, such as Gone with the Wind, Uncle Tom references and other fictionalized characters, and "storytelling feminists and black art movements," such as the Harlem Renaissance. Academics have compared her work to that of Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th century Dutch painter, and Honore Daumier, the 19th century French caricaturist, among others.

Walker is also attracted to "the giddy hysteria of making stuff up," and this fact is responsible for the "humor in the work -- absurdity and preposterousness." On the other hand, she also talked about "the serious abuses of power" -- an ongoing theme in her art, and what black women's bodies represent. From this issue she developed the character of "The Negress," saying "her needs and desires are the property of others" and discussed "her Negressity" -- the "lack of recognition of herself as a black woman." Walker described slave narratives as a means for "how people choose to tell their stories" and possibly more importantly, "what they leave out."

Walker said that her films require essentially three individuals working in tandem: the puppeteer (herself), a cameraman, and an editor. She basically produces "Creation stories from Black America" and accompanies them with "old-timey" music from the turn of the last century to the 1920s.

One will notice that images pertaining to "the trauma of childbirth" and the passage of human fecal matter pervade Walker's work. In response to questions about why there is a focus on the latter, "the shit motif," as she humorously puts it, she said something to the effect that "shit is something that one makes gleefully -- it's all wrong and you're not supposed to play with it." Not only that, but "it's the first thing you do." On her "loss of limb motif" -- a number of her slaves have amputated body parts -- Walker described how runaway slaves would often suffer punishment upon being captured by having a foot cut off and other atrocities of a similar nature.

Kara Walker is a visual and literal storyteller, a recaller of the past, and a visionary rolled into one. Despite harsh criticism (some might say possibly because of it), she relentlessly soldiers on, and it is a good thing she does -- for although we as human entities may be capable of forgiveness, we must never forget. - Alison McParlin Davis

Murphy Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love runs through June 8, 2008 at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90024.

alison_davis.jpgMs. Davis-Murphy was born in NYC, grew up in Greenwich Village, graduated from Barnard College, Musician's Institute in LA, and in 2001 received her Master's degree in Psychology from Phillips Graduate Institute in LA. An avid photographer, guitarist, and pianist, she currently lives in California with her husband and six cats, and is working on her semi-autobiography titled The Naked Ballerina: Diary of a Professional Tease.

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