Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Kara Walker and the Romance of Violence

We had a teacher, actually I think he was the director, back in art school who always told us to "pull every thread". He meant that in reading and researching the way to richness was to follow every lead, to thoroughly investigate whatever came our way. It's good advice and since I've started writing for Goody and her sister blog, Art in Victoria, it's advice I ardently follow.

The most recent thread I've come across is Kara Walker. I took a look at her work a few weeks ago after reading about her in an article. I had to resort to online perusal of her art since I live in the sticks, relative to New York or Vancouver or even Victoria, for god'sakes. And probably because it wasn't live art- looking I couldn't really get behind what I was seeing. So I put her name on a post- it note and stuck her to the wall above my computer and then moved on to someone else. However, I saw her name again, this time in the context of controversial and offensive art and I decided I better really pull that thread this time.

Kara Walker is a contemporary African American artist working on "telling the story of racism". She uses black cut paper silhouettes and projections to create room sized narratives revolving around slavery, murder, rape, stereotypes and caricatures. In doing so she also manages to evoke the romance of the southern USA, pre-Civil War. Think Scarlett O'Hara with her Mammy and her dresses and her beaux. Think William Faulkner and his mournful tales of a lost generation of genteel ladies and gentlemen. But don't forget about the chains and the killing and the young girls up for sale.

Kara Walker plays a very interesting game with this work. The black silhouette is in itself an innocent folk inspired art form. How often have you seen little oval portraits of children in silhouette? Or the Chinese paper cuts, or the colourful Ukranian paper art? Very charming. And it's true in this case too. At first glance Kara Walker's work is all theatre and childrens' stories. It's beautiful and feminine, it's a delight. Until you see the ugliness. The heads on stakes. And then it gets kind of uncomfortable. It doesn't seem like a pretty, magical fairy tale anymore.

But is it real? Is it anymore real than any other version of the American slave trade? Was the violence really so lavish? So easily overlooked? I mean Mitchell and Faulkner don't seem to dwell too overwhelmingly on the violence of white on black. How could whites have lived in such close proximity to such savage cruelty. What did the despair, surely palpable do to them in their white finery? They must have been not much more than actors. Playing their roles. And the violence, itself, was all encompassing. The white boys and men died in droves defending the southern states. Certainly no one denied the existence of slaves and of owning slaves. Certainly no one can deny how necessary is violence to keep the strong bowed down in slavery. To keep the strong afraid. Dependent.

That is what is real. Fear and violence and dependence. That is what the Southerners did to the Africans, and that is what the North did to the South, and that is what the US wanted to do to Iraq. I could go on. It is a human drama. Power and powerlessness, for all kinds of reasons, but mostly economic.

In the Confederate South, there was also theatre and Kara Walker has taken a place among the great story tellers of the last century, taking for her own version the grandeur, the depravity, the truly complex society of black and white who lived and died for freedom.

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