The Ecstasy of St. Kara

Tyra A. Seals Director’s Fellow

 

Through fantastical, emotionally wrenching artwork—described by New York Times art critic Holland Cotter as “a cross between a children’s book and a sexually explicit cartoon”—Kara Walker explores the many intersections of race, gender, and sexuality throughout history. After receiving her BFA from Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design three years later, Walker went on to create Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994), first exhibited at New York’s Drawing Center. With the title reminiscent of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind, the provocative piece uses silhouetted figures to portray slavery-era violence; white masters can be seen performing sex acts on black servants while other characters grope and defecate on each other. Audiences reacted strongly to the combination of such grotesque subject matter with minstrel-era, storybook-innocent nostalgia. Gone set the frame for Walker’s future art.

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At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant 2014. Kara Walker (American, born 1969). A project of Creative Time. Bleached sugar; about 1,082 x 792.5 x 2,300 cm. Installation view from Domino Sugar Refinery, Brooklyn, New York, May 10–July 6, 2014. © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

 

Playing upon the privileged and prejudiced history of bourgeois painting, Walker decided to make her initial artistic mark through black paper silhouettes. Colleen Walsh, writing in Radcliffe Magazine, observed: “Inspired by minstrel shows, film, paintings, romance novels, and sentimental fictions, the silhouettes made her an overnight star.” The silhouette was an art form originally meant to amuse the early 18th-century French elite, but Walker had subverted the genre to depict a reality that most of the nobility would shudder at. Propelled into the public eye, in 1996 the then 27-year-old artist became the second youngest recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.”

The antebellum American South was laden with dangers that were specific to black women and could lead to torturesome consequences. Black women battled the concealed sexual advances of masters who outwardly proclaimed disgust for them, and endured the simultaneous hatred and scorn of plantation mistresses, among other misfortunes. In Walker’s more recent The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin (2015), viewers witness a young black boy being lynched and a black woman being violently attacked on the ground. Walker’s straightforward presentation of this blatant, searing imagery exemplifies her desire to resurrect a buried history—and to further educate the public about horrors enacted in the past against black individuals and the deeply entrenched effects that we continue to see in contemporary society.

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Darkytown Rebellion 2001. Kara Walker. Cut paper; about 457.2 x 1,005.8 cm projected on wall. Installation view from Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, February 17–May 13, 2007. © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

 

Invigorated by the success of her massive silhouette pieces, Walker began to exhibit imaginative, complex drawings. The drawings tap the same subject matter as her silhouettes: how the plantation system, powered by slave labor, laid the framework for hetero- and homosocial interactions that have birthed and bolstered stereotypes for nearly 250 years. Walker employs caricatures in her charcoal, graphite, and ink creations—including mammies, negresses, and sambos—and raises their individual stories to critical consciousness. In 2016, when deadly violence fills the news, Walker’s examination of the power dynamics between blacks and whites is especially potent and timely. She unapologetically recounts an underreported but deeply relevant version of American history.

Earlier this year, Walker was awarded a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome as the Roy Lichtenstein Artist in Residence. The academy provides a select group of forward-thinking artists and scholars an environment that fosters intellectual and artistic freedom. Surrounded by religious art in Rome, Walker began to connect the role of faith as traditionally depicted to how faith has assisted in the subjugation of black individuals. The elements of monumentality, grandeur, and immutability seen in religious art were also operative in Walker’s 2014 A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. The massive size of the sphinx-like Domino sugar mammy figure makes a strong first impression, and the fact that sugar was produced and harvested primarily by African slaves is a major premise that aligns A Subtlety with Walker’s earlier work: many black lives were lost turning sugarcane into a fine confection for the pleasures and delights of a privileged white elite.

The large-scale drawings Walker produced during her time in Rome this spring (this magazine’s cover shows her at work) are featured in The Ecstasy of St. Kara. These single, triptych, and five-part pieces delve into the hyper-religious aspect of southern living that was amplified and used to justify slavery as a humane practice. A twisted sort of crucifixion with a black man woefully holding a crown of thorns is depicted in a five-part piece. In one triptych a black woman builds an ark on top of men, women, and children who seem to cower in fear. In another work, a black woman represented as a scarecrow alludes to Jim Crow laws. Walker approaches familiar subjects in an unsettling way that leaves no oppressive stones unturned, religious ones being no exception.

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Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats 2005. From the portfolio Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated). Kara Walker. Offset lithography and silkscreen on paper; 99.1 x 134.6 cm. © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

 

Though most of her work is rooted in the environment of the antebellum South, Walker ties those historical references to modern-day events. Last Memory of Birdie Africa (2016) connects relics of the old South with the name of Birdie Africa, the only child to survive the infamous 1985 bombing of the West Philadelphia compound of MOVE, a radical black liberation organization. Born Michael Moses Ward, Birdie Africa died in 2013. MOVE is vehemently against big business, industry, and man-made laws; the group believes in a universal, self-explanatory law of man, which denies the necessity for imposing government structure and industry. Walker uses MOVE’s narrative not to endorse all of its beliefs, but to show that its desire for freedom from oppression was not dissimilar to the situation of African slaves living in the old South. Whether the setting is a plantation or an inner-city ghetto, Walker’s depictions of the oppression of black individuals captivate audiences worldwide.     

 


Cleveland Art, September/October 2016