Recent Films such as Django Unchained directed by Quentin Tarantino and former Turner prize winner Steve McQueen’s 12 Years have brought the horrific history of slavery into focus. Talking at the Toronto press conference of the film McQueen stated that “It’s one thing to read about slavery, to have these illustrations – but when you see it on celluloid and within a narrative, it does something different starts a conversation, wonderful, excellent, it’ll be about time… Yes, race is involved, but it goes beyond that.” In fact McQueen goes even further stating that the film, which includes harrowing scenes of extreme violence, is a “film about love…there is a lot of pain in love sometimes and you have to get through it. It’s the journey of Solomon Northup, who gets back to his family.”
Slavery is definitely one of the themes in the work of Kara Walker currently on show at the Camden Arts Centre, but for Walker as with McQueen, the work transcends race to also encompass issues of power, repression, history and sexuality. Walker’s art is set within a very defined historicity, her black card cut-outs mirror the dainty silhouettes favoured by the 18th Century artists who made pastoral scenes and portraits using this method. Walker’s large panoramic cut-outs subvert this traditional Swiss German technique known as Scherenschitte which incidentally became popular among 19th Century genteel Southern Belles.
Showing brutal scenes featuring rapes, lynchings and burnings Walker’s panoramas seem a visual equivalent of Billie Holliday’s song Strange Fruit with its visceral indictment of Southern racism.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
So far so politically correct, and yet Walker has not always been in favour with certain sections of an older generation of Black American women who have found her interpretations of slavery offensive claiming that the images she produces are pornographic and that she is supplying racist images to whites, which they secretly enjoy seeing.
Echoing McQueen's concept that his film is about love, Walker once titled an exhibition My Compliments, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love hinting at an implied grey area of sadomasochism and possibly even complicity with master/slave relationships.
As the great political activist and author Angela Davis has written, this maybe goes some way towards explaining the views of Black American women of her generation.
"We have inherited a fear of memories of slavery. It is as if to remember and acknowledge slavery would amount to our being consumed by it. As a matter of fact, in the popular black imagination, it is easier for us to construct ourselves as children of Africa, as the sons and daughters of kings and queens, and thereby ignore the Middle Passage and centuries of enforced servitude in the Americas. Although some of us might indeed be the descendants of African royalty, most of us are probably descendants of their subjects, the daughters and sons of African peasants or workers."
Walker has no such fear of facing the complex and politically charged issues of slavery and indeed even of using back in the day stereotypical signifiers. As a contemporary artist, she demands the freedom to explore whatever route her imagination dictates. “ Yes I have caused controversy” she admitted at the press launch of her show at the Camden Arts Centre “but just being an artist itself is trouble” she added. “For years at art college I wanted to be a 'proper' painter, I wanted to make large gestural canvases, I saw a certain masculine power in it. But then after I abandoned painting because it was not working for me, I was going through a quest of understanding my own identity as a Black woman and my own identity as an artist I started drawing and writing and that’s how I came to the cut-outs."
In another part of the gallery Walker shows Dust Jackets for the Niggerati a series of large graphite drawings, conceived as book covers for unwritten essays and works of fiction. Walker explains that these drawings were inspired by the short lived African American magazine called Fire!! founded in 1926 during what became known as the Harlem Renaissance. These large scale drawings are a contrast to the precision of the cut-outs. As Walker has said “I can be really messy with these”. They show another aspect of her artistry and herald not only a return to her abandoned first love of gestural mark making but also an affinity with Fire’s aims of exploring issues in the Black community that were not at the forefront of mainstream African American society such as bisexuality, interracial relationships, promiscuity and colour prejudice within the black community itself. Writing about the publication one of its editors the poet Langston Hughes said it was so called as it wanted to “burn up a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past”
Kara Walker’s work is paradoxically easy on the eye and horrific, the work is complex, multi-layered, provocative, old fashioned and thoroughly contemporary all at the same time. It demands to be seen not just for the exploration of its unsightly themes but for what it can teach us about the extraordinary courageous artistic process employed by and arrived at by the artist herself.
Kara Walker's exhibition can be seen at Camden Arts Centre from 11th October 2013 - 5th January 2014.
An essay by Alex Michon on the work of Kara Walker and Ellen Gallagher entitled Promised Land can be found in Arty 33 The Deep South issue through Transition Editions.
Visit the Arty website for more information about current and back issues of the zine.
Kara Walker, Wall Sampler 1, 2013, Cut paper and paint on wall
Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, 2013
Kara Walker, Still from: Fall From Grace, Miss Pipi's Blue Tale, 2011
Video (color, audio), 17 minutes
Kara Walker, Dust Jackets for the Niggerati- and Supporting Dissertations, Drawings submitted ruefully by Dr. Kara E. Walker
Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, 2011