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My Racialized Fantasy - Kara Walker

My Racialized Fantasy - Kara Walker

John Haber

October 24, 2007

New York – For so congenial an artist, Kara Walker sure stirs up a lot of emotion. Black artists tend to do that, but not often her way. She showed it barely a year before, as a guest curator at the Met. There she charted a history from slavery and popular culture to the devastation of Katrina. Now, in a retrospective at the Whitney, she gets to incorporate the anger of others into her art.

An historical romance

She does not oblige one to look at lives lost to poverty and violence. She does not shine a harsh spotlight on cities in decay or on people displaced by cities on the rise. She does not represent blacks as mere victims, whether of racism or—for my readers on the Supreme Court—of racial preferences. Nor does she challenge the mythic great white male artist on his own terms, as might black abstract artists or Gary Simmons. Even when she works large, and most often she does, she works from simple drawings and cut-paper silhouettes. Yet her characters take action, even if just to strangle a chicken or to poop on the floor.

No, she has something very much her own in mind. She does not linger over big lips, big pricks, or other discomforting stereotypes of race and masculinity. Black men get only supporting roles, if that, and for once the white male is the invisible man. Her images come from a safely distant past and a safe geographical distance from New York galleries, in plantation life. Even then, they come filtered through such tried-and-true sources as Walt Disney, Margaret Mitchell, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I really ought to read that classic one day.

All this is precisely what gets her acclaim—and what gets on people’s nerves. The first work in her retrospective covers a wall in, literally, black and white. Neatly framed by trees at either side, it might appear painted on the wall. That reminder of wall drawings and installations—like those of a black woman artist, Julie Mehretu—already hints that Walker is not just recycling the good or bad old days. It should connect her in one’s mind to contemporary artists and their incessant demands for attention. So should the actual paper medium, with its echoes of old-fashioned cameos and the decorative arts, further asserting the status of a woman artist.

In between, the characters look familiar enough, at least in their dress. After that, they get raunchy very quickly indeed. Besides the chicken and the poop, Walker supplies more than enough sex and violence. And yet these, too, lean heavily on well-known racial stereotypes. Her overblown titles similarly cross first from quotation to parody and then to reassertion of nasty old roles after all. Try reading all the way to the end of Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Negress and Her Heart.

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