This review of Kara Walker’s exhibition at Camden Arts Centre was published in Art Monthly’s December-January issue 2013/14
Following Stephen Spielberg’s patriotic abolitionist biopic Lincoln in 2012, Hollywood is set to bookend 2013 with two blockbuster slave narratives. At the start of the year came Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a predictable mess of bloody postmodern pastiche and fanboy b-movie homage. At the year’s end a loftier offering awaits: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, which, with its ennobling true tale of betrayal, bondage and triumph over adversity, looks destined to win at least two awards come Oscar night. Both films boast a form of unflinching realism, where the shackles are rusty and the sadism, though casually administered, is always brutally visceral. The culture industry, then, has briefly made a tell-it-like-it-is approach to slavery newsworthy. Unfortunately, media timeliness can’t stop Kara Walker’s first major UK solo show from feeling like it has come ten years too late.
Emerging in the mid 1990s, Walker quickly distinguished herself with a mature, fully formed aesthetic that deftly met the needs of the art market and the contemporary institution. Her distinct use of figurative black-and-white silhouettes, depicting scenes from America’s history of slavery, addressed the commercial demand for a consistent and instantly recognisable style, and satisfied the burgeoning curatorial desire that all serious artists site their work within some field of contemporary critical discourse. But while marginalised female, minority ethnic and queer artists produced confrontational contemporary image-work to challenge misrepresentations perpetuated by the patriarchal, heteronormative, and inherently racist mainstream, Walker’s oeuvre offered something of a safer option for those looking to pay lip-service to the wave of agitation linked to the field of identity politics. Today her work still presents a direct engagement with atrocity and the roots of black oppression, but it is an exploration rendered palatable and historically distant by her signature craft-like practice of shadowy tableaux.
In the first of three rooms, a set of paper-cut silhouettes, depicting calamitous scenes of sexual perversity, deviance and violence, cover three large walls. These are the ‘Wall Samples’, hand-cut and installed by Walker on site. They capture her familiar cast of caricatures – the buck negro, the mammy, pickaninnies, southern belles and cavalrymen – in wacky freeze-frames that buzz with all the parodic cruelty of a troupe of parading circus clowns. In one section a black male fellates a white soldier, above that a stick protrudes from a man’s anus, in another black characters run to escape pursuing dogs. Here Walker is seeking to unearth and critique the representational foundations of racism by playing with stereotypes that continue to inform media representations of black subjects. But there is also a certain perversity in the process. The silhouettes, finely cut and carefully installed, invite aesthetic delectation, but to appreciate these works for their beauty, to laugh at the depiction of slavery as farcical panoply, feels uncomfortably inappropriate. Not because the boundaries of political correctness have been transgressed and the conservatism of the superego has been confronted, but because the works are grotesque. As such, Walker’s ‘Wall Samples’ attempt to provoke the viewer into a recognition of the repressed, which in this instance would be identified as the idea, buried deep in the collective unconscious, that blacks conform to savage, sexualised and servile stereotypes. This strategy is also used as a justification for the most repugnant paragraph I have ever read in a catalogue essay. The passage, written by British author Hari Kunzru, anticipates and addresses a sexually repressed white female reader (itself an enduring construct of a sexist, multiracial patriarchy), asking her to imagine a train carriage invaded by young black men who are moving ‘with that way they have, that rolling, physical way that makes it … hard not to think about what’s between their legs’. Kunzru continues: ‘When you tug down the hem of your dress and clutch your handbag … that has nothing to do with history, right?’ By amplifying these allegedly hidden aspects of a society regulated by political correctness, Kunzru and Walker are trying to shake audiences into a critical awareness of their own latent collective bigotry. It is a strategy that worked for Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, but it fails in Kunzru’s ill-judged text and Walker’s ‘Wall Samples’. In the end the only mental depths these images seem to have sprung from, the only consciousnesses still invaded by these grotesque formulations, are the authors’ own.
Dust Jackets For the Niggerati, a series of large charcoal drawings, fare better. The confident forcefully applied lines of heavy charcoal in each work offer a compellingly physical contrast to the perfectly smooth wall silhouettes. Sketch for an American Comic Opera with 20th century Race Riots, 2012, is separated into an impressive triptych of a chaotic race riot. A Rural Antidote, 2011, bursts with frenetic energy as a mass of limbs and faces jumble together in a cloud of speed lines and scribbles surrounded by heavy black shadows of solid charcoal. Finally, the moving image work Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale, 2011, transports Walker’s silhouettes into the lo-fi world of video with the story of a black slave mutilated by a jealous white suitor. It is the most complex stylistic rendering of her ideas, and the combination of a nightmarish shadow play with whispered narration produces a genuinely unique viewing experience.
Overall, Walker’s belated major solo show presents an artist who is comfortable with familiarity. For all the column inches – in the UK’s broadsheets and weeklies – dedicated to the confrontational nature of the work, the exhibition’s quiet air of predictability speaks volumes about Walker’s inability to challenge herself. Of course this might also be a question of context. I suspect in Walker’s hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, and even in her New York base, the works continue to scandalise and spark important debate. But here, something about the exhibition’s tone seems a little off the mark. For me it was a misfire of address epitomised by the florid and quite bizarre exhibition subtitle ‘We at Camden Arts Centre are Exceedingly Proud to Present an Exhibition of Capable Artworks by the Notable Hand of the Celebrated American, Kara Elizabeth Walker, Negress’. That said, Walker’s work is still of undeniable canonical importance. But in this exhibition her interrogation of race, racism and slavery is an assault rooted in the antebellum annals and civil rights era of American history, not in the here and now.