Presenting Negro Scenes Drawn Upon My Passage Through the South and Reconfigured for the Benefit of Enlightened Audiences Wherever Such May Be Found, By Myself, Missus K.E.B. Walker, Colored
Which of us has overcome his past? And the past of a Negro is blood dripping down through the leaves, gouged out eyeballs, the sex torn from the socket and severed with a knife. But this past is not special to the Negro. The horror is also the past, and the everlasting potential, or temptation, of the human race. If we do not know this, it seems to me, we know nothing about ourselves, nothing about each other; to have accepted this is also to have found a source of strength - source of all our power. But one must first accept this paradox, with joy.
It was from a personal perspective that James Baldwin arrived at the question: What does it mean to be human? As a black gay man who took pride in his skill as a polemicist, Baldwin felt obliged, if not entitled, to address the question of humanity. He immediately understood that the question was accountable to race and sexuality, making the stakes at once both personal and social. The question of humanity, however, allowed Baldwin to consider the past outside of an historical context. Not only do the words “past”, “potential”, and “temptation” establish a trajectory that transcends history, they also paint a dark picture of human nature by calling into question the idea of moral progress. But Baldwin’s comment was far more than a condemnation of this country’s inability to come to terms with its historical underbelly of racial violence. Implicit in his suspicion of moral progress was a critique of the question. Baldwin knew that the use of the word human was rhetorical in that the question of humanity could never yield answers universal in scope. It is a question whose answer ultimately depends on who is doing the asking and what period is under examination. In short, Baldwin understood that the question would always falter before history, making it a paradox rather than an inquiry capable of resolution.
In light of this quote from Baldwin, one could without reservation characterize Kara Walker’s imagination as joyful. That is a scary thought for an artist whose work often includes sexually explicit images which at their most harrowing have depicted acts of pedophilia and bestiality. Then again, some imaginations are more active than others. As black paper cut outs adhered directly to the white walls of the gallery, Walker’s work is put forth in no uncertain terms. Her world is quite frankly black and white. In fact, it is shameless. The work’s refusal to acknowledge shame when dealing with issues of race and desire set within the context of slavery, allows Walker to challenge, indeed taunt, our individual and collective historical imaginations. From Baldwin’s generation to Walker’s, the issue as to how to come to terms with a painful past persists. How does one write oneself into a painful history without first inquiring into the human capacity for lust, disgust, and violence? And if one is African-American, as is Walker, where does one begin this task amidst the pickaninnies, sambos, mammies, mandingos and mulatto slave mistresses depicted on sought after flotsam and jetsam hiding in the back of antique stores, bric-a-brac that goes by the name of bygone Americana? As bizarre, beautiful, or violent as her imagery may be, Walker understands that an historical imagination is a prerequisite for genuine ownership of the past. And if the task of writing oneself into history is conducted at the level of Baldwin’s paradox of what it means to be human, then this task must take into account pain, parody, pleasure, poetry and ultimately the perverse.
Although her cut-outs have been likened to the literature of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara, Walker’s work actually shares more in common with dimestore historical romances that use the ante-bellum as a backdrop. With human chattel as part of the historical mise-en-scene, it begs to be asked to what extent a romance could follow conventions of decency before the specter of perverse power relations would come into play. For Walker, this extent certainly is not great. Her vignettes are designed to upstage the entire genre. But Walker’s work exceeds parody. Using her artistic hindsight, slavery could just as easily have been dubbed “the perverse institution” by Sigmund Freud as it was “the peculiar institution,” by Frederick Law Olmsted. Her vision is a skewed triad of race, history and desire, that when it avails itself to a reading, avails itself to one of such surreal and psychological dimension that perhaps it is better to call it a diagnosis.
Shame, the psychic force of prohibition, is a good place to begin. Walker’s work is shameless three times over. In her choice of imagery, she has abandoned the historical shame surrounding slavery, the social shame surrounding stereotypes, and finally a bodily shame regarding sexual and excretory functions. To put it bluntly, as the legibility of her imagery warrants, Walker’s installations are a freak scene a la de Sade. Lick, suck, devour. Prod, poke, puncture. Shit, fuck, bludgeon. They are a psycho-sexual mess of Looney Toons proportion. Needless to say, it is the two hundred year history of a shameful act conducted squarely within our consciousness that makes it possible for Walker to not only refuse shame but to blur the distinction between forms of shame. Even more important, Walker is aware that to speak of shame is simultaneously to speak of disgust, the overcoming of which is a prerequisite for sexual pleasure. Given the volume of shame, it is no wonder that the pleasures derived by her characters are often Sadistic in nature. Even her victims victimize, as is the case with the detail from The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, in which an amputee stabs one child and through some perverse polymorphous gluttony is attempting to ingest another whole. The psychology behind this perpetuated cruelty recalls a scene cited by Frantz Fanon, from the film Home of the Brave in which a Pacific War veteran turns to an African American and says “Resign yourself to your color the way I got used to my stump; we’re both victims.”
Walker, however, is capable of more subtle forms of confounding, as is the case when the economy surrounding slavery is overlapped with that surrounding sex. As Walker’s baby plopping pickaninny in her 1994 installation Gone: An Historical Romance Of A Civil War As It Occurred Between The Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress And Her Heart suggests, slavery was a labor force meant to reproduce itself. If sex is theoretically defined as an economy whose poles are reproduction - read work or utility - on the one hand, and pleasure - read play or surplus - on the other, then slavery would fall into the former category. The tier of breast suckling from The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven depicts the transition of sex from reproductive utilitarian ends to an erotic surplus that stands outside the ends of slavery. In short, sexual pleasure becomes the locus of an individual bodily sovereignty, pleasure as a form of power. But pleasure should not simply be equated with power. As theorist Michel Foucault would have it, this is “power that lets itself be invaded by the pleasure it is pursuing; and opposite it, power asserting itself in the pleasure of showing off, scandalizing, or resisting. Capture and seduction, confrontation and mutual reinforcement; parents and children, adults and adolescents, educators and students, doctors and patients.” And for Walker, this list would include the slave mistress and her conscripted lover. Liberation is not in the form of the plantation rebellion or the runaway slave in search of the underground railroad. Instead, it is the naughty tongue of a slave mistress tickling the barrel of a kneeling soldier’s rifle, or the chicken drumstick, willfully abandoned in favor of his tender sexual advances. Did Walker’s suggested forms of bodily sovereignty exist in spite of slavery? Or were they more so the case under the confines of slavery? Although Walker seems to leave very little to the imagination, the spaces she does leave blank are reserved for questions such as these. With historical accuracy effectively suspended, her cut-outs, for all their clarity, in the end become a Rorschach test whose highly subjective readings are consciously over determined. In avoiding Walker’s conclusions, however, it begs to be asked, where does our imagination go? Does it lapse into a moralizing tone? Or does it allow for more complex human relations to emerge, relationships which for better or worse either hurt, haunt or simply hover over us today, whether these specters be relationships between blacks and whites or simply our relationship to the stereotypes Walker employs?
Walker does not control these specters as much as she wields them. Violently humanized through acts involving the grotesque, Walker’s characters are violently racialized through her use of stereotypes. Her stereotypes, however, exceed the immediate pain associated with demeaning images of African Americans. Her images encompass the obverse, the fear that one’s actions will correlate to a stereotype. Under these circumstances, the onus is to prove what one is not rather than what one is. While the stereotypes a group creates of itself fall under the category of parody, the dilemma arises when a group, because of pre-existing imagery, is unable to parody itself before others. Filled with a shameless humor, the early careers of Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx and Rudy Ray Moore for example, involve African Americans parodying themselves to themselves through the exploitation of stereotypes. Walker likewise embraces, even exaggerates stereotypes. But Foxx, Pryor and Moore’s exploitation of stereotypes was at the service of humor, while Walker’s work moves toward anger as her attempts to violently humanize stereotypes only leads to the creation of even more questionable stereotypes. Walker’s recasting of stock black ante-bellum characters is an exchange of one stereotype for another as the sexual sovereignty of her mammies, sambos, pickaninnies, and slave mistresses is eclipsed by the myth’s surrounding black sexuality, myths which contemporary reality has only further confounded. For proof, one need only refer to the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, the confessionals of Magic Johnson or Wilt Chamberlin, or the psychosocial, psychosexual drama of O.J. Simpson; these examples corresponding to myths of black hypersexuality and the evils of miscegeny. Again, the fear being that one’s actions fulfill rather than negate stereotypes. The result is frustration over issues of audience and representation perhaps best expressed in the following bit of dialogue between Archibald and Village, two black characters from Jean Genet’s play The Blacks.
ARCHIBALD: They tell us that we’re grown-up children. In that case, what’s left for us? The Theater! We’ll play at being reflected in it, and we’ll see ourselves - big black narcissists - slowly disappearing into its waters.
VILLAGE: I don’t want to disappear.
ARCHIBALD: You’re no exception! Nothing will remain of you but the foam of your rage. Since they merge us with an image and drown us in it, let the image set their teeth on edge!
Walker’s work is relentless. It ekes out much of its poetry through its excessiveness. Since her stereotype’s quest for liberation through pleasure has been foiled by yet another layer of myths, Walker has had to proceed to taboos such as animality. This seems logical if not inevitable given the workings of her imagination. Legally classified as property and categorized as a species less than human, blacks fell prey to a whole series of myths as to their animal nature. Work horses, raging bulls, and sexual bucks, blacks, as the myth would have it, like animals had no choice but to obey their instincts. In the silhouette chosen for the invitation, Walker has juxtaposed animality with high culture. The dancer is oblivious to the snarling rodents which populate her dress. The maintenance of a Degas-like grace, indicates that the events transpiring around her lower half are not foreign to her. Perhaps they are somehow a part of who she is, in which case, these animals are meant to signify our lower selves, our animals selves, vestiges of which are to be found in our hairy parts. The raging animals on the young girls dress can then be read as a substitute for the untamed hair between our legs as opposed to the sculpted hair on our heads. Poised between sex and civilization, between an aggressive animal act and an elegant refinement of manners, Walker’s young dancer and her pet pals represent the height and depth of humanity.
Animal Nature/Human Nature, Life/Death, Pleasure/Pain. Walker, however, unlike Bruce Nauman, is concerned with the cruel aspects of human nature set within an historical context as the anachronistic character of her medium suggests. Skiagraphy, Decoupure, Shadowgraphy, Papyrography, Scissorgraphy, and Black Shade, these are some of the names that black paper portraiture has had throughout its life from the mid 17th century to the end of the 19th century. Although he did not invent black paper portraiture, the name and indeed the word silhouette were taken from Etienne de Silhouette 1709-1767, Louis XV’s miserly minister of finance who apparently practiced the art. The word was brought to England and popularized by the most famous practitioner of cut black paper portraiture, August Edouart 1789-1861. Edouart’s career represents the height of the genre’s popularity, which was between 1770 and 1850. Although it was destined to become a poor man’s portraiture, silhouettes gained their dignity by having been used to capture the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie. Mechanized, however, within the first decade of the 19th century, silhouette portraiture lost most of its prestige shortly thereafter. Not only was photography a mere four decades away, but silhouette portraiture had been deemed a craft rather than an art form, securing for it a place at carnivals and in classrooms devoted to the training of “good ladies.”
To say that Walker has exploited the irony inherent in the medium is an understatement. With respect to the dates that cut black paper portraiture was practiced, the form certainly reinforces the content. Slavery was practiced in the United States from 1619 until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Walker’s genuine historical affinity, however, is with the slave narrative, an autobiographical genre unique to the slaves of North America. Although there are only estimated to be a hundred or so full-length book accounts by former slaves, according to scholar, Marion Wilson Starling, all in all, some 6,000 slaves recorded their tales through interviews, essays and books. The invitations Walker has designed for her exhibitions, including the one for this show, were done after a combination of typographical designs for posters announcing 18th and 19th century spectacles as well as the designs for the title pages of slave narratives. In this instance, Walker has aimed her wit directly at the audience. By extending this invitation under the assumption that you are indeed one of “our Negro Brethren,” Walker, with all the playful antagonism of Fats Waller, is asking “Is you is, or is you ain’t.” Perhaps less subtle is the blurring of her own name with that of W.E.B. DuBois and Madame C.J. Walker, an early entrepreneur in the black beauty industry and inventor of the hot comb. Maybe the issue is not whether some imaginations are more active than others but what some imaginations are willing to wield and therefore yield. Needless to say, in Walker’s mind, a Harlequin Romance becomes a deadly weapon. As Lou Rawls put it, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” In Walker’s case, however, he would probably have cut it short to “A mind is terrible thing.” The mind can be a terrible thing, a frightening thing, only because it is a powerful thing; a thing, as Walker proves, capable of breaking the shackles of history.