Notes on a Negress

In a new exhibition, Kara Walker's silhouettes explore the moist, violent, conflicted conceptual terrain of American race and sexuality. But is there Hope?

Collection Donna and Cargill MacMillan

"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

Barack Obama

"I remember wanting to be the heroine, but I remember also wanting to kill the heroine at the same time."

– Kara Walker

In the 16 years since her 1994 debut, 38-year-old Kara Walker has arguably become the best known and most feted African American visual artist of her era. "Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love," her current retrospective now on view at Los Angeles' Hammer Museum, is a high-profile honor for an artist so young. Walker's cut-paper silhouettes -- the antic, bruising, racial fever-dream her sharp black shapes and blobs depict -- are already an unmistakable visual signature.

Since her 1994 coming-out at New York's Drawing Center with "Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart," a huge diorama that mixed Gone with the Wind with Birth of a Nation, Walker has steadily toiled the same patch of soil to create the interconnected body of work on view in My Complement, My Enemy.

From 10,000 feet, Walker's art uses the techniques of Victorian-era paper silhouetting and shadow projections to explore the moist, violent, conflicted conceptual terrain of American racial fantasy and paranoia. Her subject matter is invariably the sexual violence of the Civil War South as simultaneously exposed and repressed in her riffs on the era's lingering fictions: The Clansman, Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Uncle Tom's Cabin, any and all depictions of black and white sexuality since. (The "heroine" Walker wants to both embody and garrote was Wind's Scarlett O'Hara.) Her cut-paper silhouettes are themselves full of typically 19th Century gentility and repression. If you were to flip them over, you'd spy the skillfully rendered and underlying armature of the full-on drawings the cut-outs once were: Walker's career-making technique submerges her own ability to make marks with ink and paint in favor of marks made with matte-black paper and an X-Acto knife.

Walker's is a strangely frictionless universe despite all the rubbing up and penetrating it depicts. Heads, broom handles, and kitchen knives disappear into black and white mouths, vaginas and, well, asses unimpeded by the pretense of internal anatomy.

Each silhouette is at turns a blow-up doll, Russian doll or Trojan horse capable of accommodating literal Civil War-era armies. In one cutout, a girl stands atop a fountain, water impossibly gushing out of her mouth, nipple, armpit. (She is both inhuman and ecstatic, empty and emblematic. The point of entry for this magical stream? The sole of her foot.)

In another series called "Negress Notes," a black girl floats like a hot air balloon tethered to a tree by a noose, the usual vectors of gravity, which is to say lynching, reversed. Another wall-sized piece includes the smallish, isolated detail of young man floating high in the air, his body held aloft by the zeppelin-like powers of his enormous, inflated penis.