In Walker’s work, slavery is a nightmare from which no American has yet awakened: bondage, ownership, the selling of bodies for power and cash have made twisted figures of blacks and whites alike, leaving us all scarred, hateful, hated, and diminished.
I found this piece on Kara Walker’s art, as well as her trajectory that led to making the specific type of work that she became famous for, to be incredibly thought provoking on many levels in relation to racism today in America and also in terms of her role as an artist in creating a new lens with which to view and process our history. On Walker’s piece “The End of Uncle Tom” (pictured above), a commentary on the psychological trauma inflicted on society by the acts described in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Als remarks that she ties together past and present roots of racism: “Both historical and contemporary, the piece is a critique of slavery, as well as of the casual racism that modern blacks are exposed to on a daily basis in our post-politically correct times. Walker throws hatred back in our faces.”
Though sometimes it is conflated with prejudice or discrimination even in modern Dictionary definitions (See: Merriam Webster), it seems to me that consensus is becoming (at least on the political left) that the term “racism” is most productively viewed semantically as a cultural term to describe systemic oppression and subjugation of one people by another based on the color of their skin, or their perceived race. Yes, slavery and subjugation has happened in other places to many different kinds of people, but in the United States our framework for the term is clearly rooted in our own history of the European colonizer’s kidnapping and enslavement of African people during the founding of the United States, and there is no way of getting around that in conversation. It seems that in order to talk about it we must recognize this and discuss racism in this country within that context. If we repress its ugliness, and pretend it has gone away it will surely pop out in some other form of violence. Language is a powerful tool, as well as visual language, and Walker confronts the viewer with disturbing, nightmarish parody of our past which creates a visceral effect of discomfort that perhaps provides a lens on our history that words cannot fully convey.
Als describes how essentially views Walker’s themes that she presents in her work as a litmus test for the viewers’ degree of education on racism: “Only the visually illiterate could mistake their post-modern critiques for realistic portrayals, and that is the difference between the racist original and the post-modern, signifying, anti-racist parody that characterizes this genre of artistic expression.” Her work is a challenge to the viewer to elevate their complexity of thinking and use new analytical tools in parsing its meaning and implications.
I found it important to note also how in the ’90s Walker’s work was received as a dangerous threat by other African American artists who viewed her choice to use degrading imagery of slavery. Walker addressed how she views this reaction as problematic and also symptomatic of the same ugliness that she is trying to expose:
“…to dismiss what I do, it basically does what I do: creates a stereotype where once there was a person. Uses all of the accoutrements of that person’s humanity—their skin, their hair, their social life—to construct another character. The only thing that’s missing is the signature, saying, ‘This is my piece. This is my Kara Walker.’”
This points again and highlights the issue of the subjugation of the body, in this case the black body, both in our history as a nation, and also in Walker’s work in order to illustrate and dissect the power struggles that still remain today. Now it seems that the cultural acceptance of the need to discuss these issues is stronger than ever. We must constantly now be reminded of the horrors of World War II, as well as the Cold War, as the threat of another potential catastrophic war is potentially looming on the horizon. Similarly we also need to be reminded of the roots of systemic racism in this country, and of the power structures which were founded upon and still exist that we may take for granted.
Walker’s work invites us to see this history and reexamine how we got here, as well present the need to both look at, acknowledge, and then begin to destroy (possibly heal?) or at least bring into sharp focus the poisonous effects of slavery as a means of confronting them. Walker also does this through claiming a political voice as an African American woman with power in the art world, which also in a way also makes her have to sacrifice herself for consumption by the art market, “…depicted in the press as the art community’s very own Sojourner Truth, a paragon of black righteousness in a corrupt white world—an image that Walker, who has said that she occasionally feels like “somebody’s pet project,” is very much aware of.”
In the article Walker says of own work that she herself wonders where it is all leading, what the next step is beyond the exposing stage:
“And out of this subservient condition…I must escape, go wild, be free, after which I have to confront the questions: How free? How wild? How much further must I go to escape all I’ve internalized?”
In this quote Walker asks this question of herself, but also seemingly rhetorically asking the same question of the viewer. As the roots and workings of racism in America become more exposed and transparent, where will our society take this issue next, both in art, belief and daily practice?
I believe that only when facing the truth is it possible to move forward; if living a lie, the ability to change reality will always be outside of our grasp. Perhaps Walker’s invitation for us to view the truth with new eyes and in discomfort is a challenge to us to unite in acknowledgment, recognition, and ultimately rejection of this past and the path it has taken us on. From here we go forward, somewhere, anywhere else, armed with the truth of the brutality of our history that Walker is depicting.