Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker

by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw
Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2005
208 pp., illus. 34 b/w, 10 col. Trade, $74.95; paper, $21.95
ISBN: 0-8223-3361-9; ISBN: 0-8223-3396-1.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Race is (perhaps tied with class) the most festishized, contradictory, goofy and frustrating part of life——and especially inner life——in the United States of America. As a black woman, Kara Walker was and is faced with taking on the race thing in a way other richly imagistic artists like Mike Kelley (from the thoroughly racialized city of Detroit!) or Paul McCarthy aren't. Walker grew up in a relatively benign and multiculturally-accepting California academic environment and, then, moved to Stone Mountain, Georgia, a town whose mountain-sized monument to insurrectionary, terrorist, and racist Confederate generals certainly deserves to be dynamited. Instead, she dynamites the imagery of racism inside American skulls with her gallery installations.

Walker mines the "done to death" racial imagery of mammies, masters, rape and murder, Uncle Tom and the whip, her devilish cartoons evocative of the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar", where we hear the "scarred old slaver...whip the women, just around midnight" Her work is cartoony, bloody, scatalogical, simplified and broadly guffawing in a sensationalistic time that lacks subtlety, a cauldron of creepiness in which she piles on the transgressions to evoke our nation's racist past and continued abuses. She works in silhouette, a "minor" art form relegated two centuries ago to women, like quilting or weaving, long undervalued as Art out of sheer sexism . . . as was the personal computer in the 1980s and early 1990s while real men manipulated 3D graphics on powerful workstations. Walker’s forms are elegantly decadent, puckish "pickaninnies" in a history book illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley or Felicien Rops. Her mannerism may be the appropriate tone with which to talk about Race——the American Unmentionable——in our overdetermined era.

Kara Walker's work is environmental, unfolding upon gallery walls to create a surrounding cocoon of sly, stark horror. Her 2000 Guggenheim Museum installation "Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, But We Pressed On)" even includes additional light projections on the walls. While Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw cites the Atlanta Cyclorama as one influence, she doesn't mention the possible influence of the black community murals created by artists of Walker's father's generation. Jon Onye Lockard's 1980 cycle in the Black Students' Lecture Hall of the Manoogian Student Center at Wayne State University in Detroit is as spatially ambitious as a Walkerworld, covering walls with symbolic narratives of the African and African-American experience, respectively. Unlike that generation of black artists' positive Afrocentric imagery or righteously indignant visual assaults upon oppression, Walker repeatedly creates a "wall of disrespect". A Detroit artist who is now about 50 years old (Mike Kelley's generation), Tyree Guyton, responded to his city's degradation by aestheticizing a city block, where he used abandoned houses as a medium to paint polka dots upon and set Arman-like assemblages of junk in front of them. His piles of shoes harbored rats that made life more difficult for remaining neighbors, who resented the gawkers who rolled down the street, car windows up, and doors locked.

In 1996 Walker created a watercolor with the central figure of John Brown, presenting him as a corpulent, grandfatherly figure; his broad nose and Ishmael Reed brow suggests classical representations of Socrates. She intended to move beyond the traditional reverence older blacks show for Brown. Though abolitionists were lampooned in Spielberg's Amistad, there is much attractive and morally sound in the "New Abolitionism" called for in the 1990s by the journal Race Traitor in hopes of eradicating white privilege by eradicating the very notion of "whiteness". My own respect for the nineteenth-century abolitionists, for Brown and his righteous intolerance for injustice, should in no way restrain Walker or other less reverent artists from investigating and depicting this historical personage in whatever manner. Far beyond the well-behaved Condoleeza behind President Bush's morally degraded public discourse, black citizens have certainly earned the right to be outrageous, deserving their equivalents of cartoonists Robert Crumb or S. Clay Wilson (creator of characters of pirate Captain Pissgums and his pugnacious nemesis Ruby the Dyke), and of Johnny Rotten's Sex Pistols blustering "I'm not an animal!" in the two-chord abortion narrative "Bodies". Hip hop music may now be the African American creative realm that most often surges over the top. Yet the question about Walker's opus remains: Is it really outrageous if it gets her a MacArthur Genius Grant and numerous museum shows? She commented upon this contradiction with a 1998 self-portrait "Cut", where blood spurts from razor-sliced wrists: Come one and all, and see the good black girl bleed.

Will Kara Walker's art outlast our visual culture of Rodney King beaten and Judge Clarence Thomas' interrogated on his dirty jokes and videos, of the O.J. and Michael Jackson trials, of New Orleans citizens waiting amongst watery corpses for assistance that won't come? Despite the lessons it should be offering under dangerously similar political circumstances, much artwork created in opposition to the Vietnam war or in support of Central American struggles of the 1980s looks very dated today. Perhaps Walker's work will look dated in 20 or 30 years as racial injustice recedes into historian memory. Interracial teens cavort in a Sunday newspaper insert advertising Target stores' summer shorts and swimsuits (Walker's own white husband is said to be supportive but not directly involved in her career). As we work like Kara Walker to build a just and post-racist society, this important artist is discussed thoughtfully and appreciatively by a serious scholar in a well-written book.



Updated 1st May 2006

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2006 ISAST