Kara Walker's art forces viewers to remember: what they have been told, what they once loved and valued and what they inherited and will pass on. Her unique take on blindly perpetuated gender relations and restrictive notions of sexuality and race creates a space parallel to contemporary conventions, a space of intriguing deconstructions and reconstruction of meaning, where we might eerily remember things we never really experienced.
Walker's most distinctive pieces are her cut-out panoramas – installations that recreate and reimagine the American antebellum society, calling into question lingering stereotypes that permeated American culture during and long after the slavery system. Not arbitrarily, she uses exclusively black to portray all characters, regardless of their role in these strange stories, and places these figures against white solid walls. Black paper against white concrete: a subversion of history and violence, inviting a liberating repainting of the wall and the start of a new story.
Stereotypical imagery is used to represent men and women, and subsequently attach to their figures a racial component. Shapes and shadows act as a proxy for subjectivity, simplifying visibility, yet complicating understanding. We recognise, among other figures, black women with hybridised, sexual bodies, in grotesque and demeaning contexts, powerless, base and barbaric. It is this very moment of recognition that points to the profound cultural violence we have inherited: we still operate obsolete visual triggers as substitutes for knowledge. We categorise what we see, without really wondering how learned to look, and who taught us.
Commodification and objectification of black bodies are challenged in these anti-narratives, as exaggerated aggression and excessively libidinal scenes place silhouettes of black women and men at the core of a destructive discourse, which was used to legitimize a defective social and cultural system. These notions are, sadly, part of our cultural legacy. Racism and prejudice still use sexuality and violence to label and categorise individuals.
Walker calls out flawed structures of knowledge, which installed deviance and abjection as discursive tropes in defining a violent, harmful and restrictive reality. Her works, however, bear a note on contemporaneity, as we find disconcerting parallels with these disproved, yet not completely abandoned frames of thought.
Walker´s scenarios are purposefully carnivalesque, inhabited by black bodies – unfinished, always in movement, never at rest, torn between pleasure and self-inflicted pain. Abjection blends with dignified irony, producing an effect of empowerment: She engages these figures in scenes that visualise stereotypes and colonial thinking, dismantling established regimes of power. There is a cathartic element to these seemingly absurd creations: they carry a lingering hope that this would be the last embodiment of prejudice and racism.
Black women are still likely to be seen as hypersexual, to the point of turning this into a marketable trait, and black men are still likely to be seen as violent. This is our legacy; this is what Walker's art seeks to challenge and invert.
Bigotry, oppression, racialisation, sexualised embodiment and abusive visual representations – they all inform our cultural memory, as we risk to keep practicing archaic, self-reproducing binary systems of value. Kara Walker interrupts our cultural routine, pushing boundaries of decency and propriety, driving us to drop stand-ins for morality and face our truth: cold against a white solid wall.
Words: Elena Stanciu
Artwork: Kara Walker