"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.
Kara Walker, Negress Notes (Brown Follies) 1996–1997 Watercolor on paper. Collection Michael and Joan Salke, Naples, Florida.
Walker is clearly a lover of puns, and so the show includes many of her text-based work, like 1997's "Do You Like Crème in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk," which exclaims: "Towards a more perfect African, which is what blk-Americans tend to choose. To reclaim one's righteous place on the throne of Africa!"
Black middle class dreams and heroisms – first this, first that; inventor of the streetlight; secret first man to the North Pole – take on imperial overtones black folks usually attribute to God-complex-having white men. Another torn sheet simply wonders whether the solution to lingering white stereotypes will always be dearly-held black stereotypes, an endless exchange of tit for tat.
To call the overall effect shocking doesn't do the work justice, as the shifting impulses Walker captures in paper with her knife, her sharp lines of guilt, shame, pride and desire, have divided audiences as much as they have challenged and amused them. In 1997 walker was rewarded for her trouble (making) with the double whammy of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" and a reactive call for a nationwide Kara Walker boycott led by black conceptual artist Betye Saar, who called Walker's work "revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves, particularly women and children. [I]t [is] basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment."
Although Saar's critique contained a fundamental conceptual and critical error (it privileged the standard issue ignorance of white consumers of Walker's work over the novelty and force of Walker's black pleasure in making said work) it's not hard to feel a slight, admittedly condescending, sympathy for her. For better or worse, we have officially waded at least hip-deep into a post-something-or-another pond, and not everyone is interested in going swimming there. The current election cycle means this era will be likely shorthanded as the Age of Obama (especially if dude wins), although the water has been rising for some time before "He" arrived on the scene, at the head of his Hope armada.
Via her unmistakably anguished and well-meaning calls for a boycott, Saar found herself playing the part of a thoroughly stereotyped "older generation" who lacks (in this drama at least) the irony, mental agility, and high-speed wireless access needed to live in the New Era. It's unfair to Saar, though, not to admit the great, ambient unease that attends Walker's work, the confusing future shock it induces where everything old finds itself unsettlingly new again.
During my visit to the Hammer, it was instructive to watch the black members of the gallery's security staff take in Walker's work as they ably discharged their tripled responsibility to protect her work, discretely have their own reactions to it, and navigate the often weird vibes being given off by the parade of overwhelmingly white patrons. Piqued curiosity, tickled amusement, well-managed revulsion and workaday boredom were all on display, which is to say, a full-spectrum of completely human, completely black and completely genuine reactions. Walker could not have asked or done better.
Kara Walker: "Emancipated on Tour" 2000. Cut paper and projection on wall. Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.
The current state of race in America is an impasse, quoth Obama, a stalemate that needs to be short-circuited and then somehow transcended. But in Walker's work, the horrific push and pull of race is an engine that produces mutant babies and sexual horror, to be sure, but also unleashes novel energies, humors, complexities and outlandish creative possibilities. Don't get me wrong: I support the Hope. But there has always been something about the peaceable racial future envisioned by some of Obama's supporters that gives me pause, leaving me with the feeling that they dream of a world where work like Kara Walker's is either quaintly archival or bled of any contemporary accusation and bite.
There's more racial change coming, and, strangely enough, post-post me sometimes finds myself as confused and resistant to some of it as Saar was resistant and confused by Walker. That's precisely the kind of universally implicating and rich irony Walker puts up on the wall in her deceptively simple black and white.
Gary Dauphin is a Los Angeles-based writer.