“Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power” at the Crocker Art Museum features 58 works by an internationally famous artist with ties to the Central Valley.
Born in 1969 in Stockton, Walker moved with her family to Stone Mountain, Ga., when she was 9 years old. She recalls the time as one of terrible “culture shock,” as she was uprooted from relatively tolerant territory to the shadow of the “Confederate Mount Rushmore,” a mountain monument to Confederate generals.
Following her early aspiration to become an artist like her father, Larry Walker, she earned her B.F.A. from the Atlanta College of Art and her M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. During this time she began cutting life-size silhouettes, inspired by her discovery of a 19th century silhouette of a black girl in profile.
Her 1994 installation at the Drawing Center in New York drew strong reactions and critical acclaim. Titled “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart,” it placed bold, black cut-out figures in a panoramic antebellum-style narrative that measured 13 feet high and 50 feet wide. In episodic bursts, the figures interacted in increasingly perverse relations that undercut the romantic world of “Gone With the Wind” with themes of sexual power, violence and abusive couplings – themes that became the basis of her work up to this day.
Investing a 19th century lady’s medium with raw power, Walker asks us to contemplate our feelings about race and history. One hundred fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, she presents scenarios that critique both our understanding of the past and our assumptions about the present in terms of race, gender and identity. This is a show that some will find offensive while others will marvel at the elegance, mastery, and mordant humor with which she imbues her work.
All the works are drawn from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation’s collection at the University of Oregon, Eugene, and span a decade of Walker’s works on paper, wall painting, sculpture and video. Her use of the silhouette pervades the work in the show and reflects the nature of stereotypes which flatten character, destroying three-dimensionality and leading to misperceptions of full-bodied reality.
The show opens with “Pastoral,” a wall painting that depicts a sheep mounting a woman and defecating on her. It’s a bestial image that critiques racial stereotypes about the animal passions of African American women, says Diana Daniels, the Crocker’s curator of contemporary art.
From this central point, the show moves around the room in increasingly disturbing images leavened by black humor. In “Keys to the Coop,” a slave girl pursues a chicken she has decapitated, holding the head up to her mouth. Again stereotypes are at play and, according to Daniels, there is also a subtext relating to voodoo rituals. The silhouetted figure, here rendered in a linocut print, is remarkably lively and masterfully defined.
In a series of etchings titled “An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters: No World,” she offers a slave narrative in which a slave ship is tossed by disembodied hands on a rough sea while a whip awaits its landing.
A long cycle of 26 scenes, titled “The Emancipation Approximation” begins with references to the mythical story of Leda and the swan, in which Zeus assumes the form of a swan to rape Leda who will give birth to Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux as a result of the coupling. Here the swans move from black to white enclosing a narrative in which stereotypical black and white figures engage in power plays both sexual and violent. Adding tones of gray to the works, it’s an ambiguous and paradoxical story of power and identity.
Walker’s video “Six Miles From Springfield on the Franklin Road” tells the story of an abused family whose house is burned down, based on records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands in the U.S. National Archives. It’s a moving narrative using shadow puppets that are manipulated by the hands of an unseen power and is reminiscent of South African artist William Kentridge’s filmic works.
Walker also presents a laser-cut steel sculpture painted black titled “Burning African Village Play Set With Big House and Lynching,” an antebellum “play set” that features sculptures of weeping willows, small huts, shackled slaves, Confederate soldiers, Southern belles and stately plantations. These small tableaux are made all the more interesting by the shadows they cast.
For Walker, Civil War history is personal and she uses images from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War as backdrops for her silhouetted figures, which express her contemporary concerns. Drawn from a two-volume anthology of the Civil War published in 1866, the backdrops form landscapes in which scenes of key military battles, political figures, and strategic locations are depicted. Appalled by the conspicuous absence of any consideration of the violence and oppression of slavery, Walker has added imagery that questions the veracity of the Harper’s anthology’s view of history.
This is a powerful show, meant to provoke discussion of both past and present attitudes towards racial politics. Walker, who was honored as one of Time magazine’s most influential people, will give a talk at the museum in November.