I want to make my work where the viewer wouldn’t walk away, he’d get pulled into history, into fiction, into something totally demeaning, and possibly very beautiful.
This is exactly what I did the first time that I saw her artwork when it premiered at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta two years ago. Most of the other displays in the 21st century exhibit were “abstract” and lacked depth, vision, and talent. For example, a painting on the other side of the room was a white canvas with three stripes of flashy, assorted colors and worth about $2,000. In the contrary, Mrs. Walker’s work was actually art and its boldness brought me to a standstill, though I wouldn’t say it was “beautiful” in the sense that we know.
Her nightmarish paper silhouette tableaux is shocking and quite explicit. They convey scenes of barbarity in the times of American Colonialism with African-American slaves that are least likely to appear in our history books. This features the violent abuse of black women and children from white slave owners, high officials, army men, and southern women. Its style resembling a children’s pop-up book make the tone even more haunting. How Walker makes the distinction between race is through modeling black people with exaggerated features such as big lips, nappy hair, and busty curviness while nude; whites are portrayed being plump, taller, and pointier with haughty pin coats and lavish frocks.
Warning: the following artwork is very graphic and are not for the eyes of children.
The above comic is set up of five instances, and is thus branded the name, A Shadow Drama in Five Acts. A black servant on the first slide acts as a wet nurse to a white boy. His aid from the woman’s breast milk shows how her responsibility extends to caring not just for her own but for children of a different race- the same race of which has carried a tradition of hate for black ethnicity. What can be said from this image is the way that society in the past was very dependent on the role of the black woman. From the cradle, white infants were pampered, primped, and catered for by servants, and they in turn grew up to rebuke the black hands that fed them. A duty was shifted onto African-American women for many years to be the one whom people depended on for advice and nourishment. She wasn’t supposed to have concerns of her own but instead absorb the issues of her employers and their families. Next to this, a young white girl holds her arms in desire or attention for the servant while hoisted on a dog that jolts towards an approaching black lady, possibly a laundress or another maid, who turns in fear. On the right slide, a snobbish, white man violently chokes a young black girl when another, in water perhaps, looks on and pleads in mercy. This exhibit is very confusing and heinous but compelling. The fragile frame of the girl with the sturdy shape of the cruel man highlights the scene’s gut-wrenching display.
Enslaved people were used as resources and commodities for the southern agriculture industry. In the illustration above, a black girl is dehumanized to a horse by a jockey, who holds a carrot in one hand and a whip in the other. A rabbit nearby shoots off a gun to signal the start of the race towards a goal of the burning, directional sign post. Symbolism manifests in this simple image- the carrot, the jockey, and the inflamed street sign. Sharecropping in post-slavery era was destined to bring about obtaining the American Dream but was an ultimate scam. Profiting off of this business was various people who sold the vegetation for money while the sharecroppers could barely get by from the money they obtained and then trapped in a cycle of poverty. The black girl represents the entire black population who was given false hope and promise so that they could dutifully perform to advance whites. A promised, future destination or reward for blacks through their strenuous labor was simply a mirage that, in a quick second, was to be eroded by flames and gone.
These derive from Walker’s “The Emancipation Approximation”. The title is clever in the way that it explains how deficient the abolition law was, replacing ‘proclamation’ with ‘approximation’ as to show how not all servants were granted freedom and oppression was still alive. On the left, a vulgar but sad display of a George Washington-type silhouette forcing a lower-level servant to perform a degrading act for him while perched on another worker who is struggling to lift under his weight. On the right, a presumably black woman holds up a white woman in a large gown and style. Both illustrate the degradation that blacks faced with the either gender and the class inequality dynamic.
To learn more about Kara Walker and her art exhibits, you can visit this link: https://art21.org/artist/kara-walker/