Kara Walker on My Mind

Kara Walker, Cut, Cut paper and adhesive on wa...Image via Wikipedia

"Is that a razor blade she's holding?"

This was my observant friend's first reaction when I shared my current reading material.

This week, I resumed reading a book that's been leaving impressions on just about all interactions that I've had lately--from workplace conversations about regional cultural climates to quieter moments of reflection about racism.

Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw's, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker, has considered Walker's evolution as an artist while distilling the painful reality of racism at the same time. Furthermore, it discusses the formation of a global dialogue that can stir complex feelings about one's own identity. Chapter 4, "Censorship and Reception," was especially considerate in relating Walker's powerful imagery. While reading, I learned that even fellow artists have questioned Walker's "appropriateness," which brings up an important question: who do we ultimately answer to as individual artists, and how does a sense of community foster that?

A New York Times article summed up her uncategorizable presence as an African-American artist in the art industry, by noting:
Race dominates everything, yet within it Ms. Walker finds a chaos of contradictory ideas and emotions. She is single-minded in seeing racism as a reality, but of many minds about exactly how that reality plays out in the present and the past.
What I admire about Walker's career is her appeal to viewers that rests upon disconcerting moments influencing contemporary culture. Installations such as Insurrection (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On) invite visitors to examine the smaller actions assigned to each silhouetted figure. Violence, whimsy, and an overarching solitude embody each figure; each is seeking liberation in some form (sexual, emotional, and everything in between).

Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On)
Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On), 2000. Cut paper silhouettes and light projections, dimensions variable. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

The study of the visual history of slavery--and more specifically the antebellum period--is a task that has informed Walker's contemplation of her own identity. She's not afraid to imagine new roles for established "heroes," either. One of the most enlightening discussions in this book relates to John Brown, the famous abolitionist. The Lactation of John Brown struck me as an image that could potentially alienate the most liberal viewers because it essentially placed the sturdy symbol (Brown) in a feminized, and some would say weaker, position; the image posits him as a would-be maternal figure who is unfortunately unable to nourish a small child. There's so much to discuss about it, and Shaw relates Brown's complex visual representation as a collection of images that leave much out of public consciousness.

This is what I learned today: During a multi-themed conversation with the aforementioned friend, I did mention ruminations about race, national identity, and other details that marked daily events. Sometimes, I get embarrassed for expressing this, and wonder if it's imaginary. Yet, in a moment of unexpected happenstance, a young girl walked by and made a fairly racialized remark that seemed to fit the prior conversation to an unsettling degree. It was both comforting for being tangible to the friend and frustrating for its misguided carelessness. We walked on and noted the passing encounter. The truth is that I was glad someone was there to witness, and I suspect that Shaw had a desire to share this (potentially) mutual consciousness about Walker's work, too. Contextualizing our experiences is at the heart of creative liberation.

I'm asking more questions lately about making art and deciding what it's for on a broader scale, and would like to hear more about your own experiences as an art supporter, critic, or maker. Where does your identity fit into your understanding of this part of culture?

Please feel free to share moments of controversy, empowerment, guidance, and community!
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