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CLEVELAND — What matters enough in American culture to warrant memorialization? Working at the American Academy of Rome earlier this year, surrounded by Renaissance and Baroque art that memorializes ancient Roman history wrought with political and religious violence, American artist Kara Walker began to reflect on her own country’s religious and political origins. The resulting show, The Ecstasy of St. Kara, recently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, grappled with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, American Civil War, African-American separatist groups, and deeply entrenched Christian ideologies. Walker’s tumultuous charcoal drawings, some of them massive, enshrine an unresolved US historical narrative filled with racism, martyrdom, and political violence.
One of the religious sculptures that Walker cites as inspiration for this body of work is a wax effigy of St. Victoria. The naturalistic sculpture is graphic: it shows the saint’s eyes rolled back in her head, throat slit, and mouth agape, with teeth viewable. Her hand is a cutaway that reveals her bones — a relic proving her incorruptibility, according to the Catholic tradition. In an essay in the exhibit’s catalogue, “Assassination by Proxy,” Walker keenly juxtaposes the violent image of St. Victoria with a rephotographed Google image of Diamond Reynolds’s picture of Philando Castile as he lay dying in a blood-drenched shirt with his head cocked back, a police gun pointed at him through his car window. “I fear that Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and all the rest were killed as proxies for The Black President,” Walker writes. Her work asserts that to be a black person in America is to be at risk for martyrdom.
Walker expands upon the idea of the African-American martyr in “Submission,” the first piece you saw when you walked into the show. At the center of the drawing is an amputated bust recalling the artist’s signature paper cut-outs; it’s surrounded by vast whiteness and embellished by a border of Renaissance-inspired drapery. The interior of the bust displays a burnt tree standing on barren ground, perhaps the remnants of a wildfire, in a manner reminiscent of Romantic landscape painting. “Submission” is the wax effigy of St. Kara — it uses the silhouette-style image most commonly identified with Walker, but instead of the cutaway revealing bones, it displays a barren ground, a scorched earth. In a 2014 talk, Walker describes having immersed herself in a white supremacist text that portrays two kinds of racism, “the genteel form” and “the scorched earth variety.” In that light, I saw “Submission” as a self-portrait by St. Kara: Walker depicts herself as a black woman and artist who must deal with racism and the way it destroys her, yet she remains incorruptible. Other works in the exhibition seemed to be further visions of St. Kara, the persona of the artist Kara Walker, exploring this phenomenon.
St. Kara is present in the two-paneled “The Republic of New Afrika at a Crossroads,” a large wash of broad, black and gray smears with bloody, dismembered brown bodies strewn about. The simple grandeur of the piece gives weight to the undervalued history of the Republic of New Afrika, but the work also flips white supremacist values on their head by validating the Republic of New Afrika’s goal of self-determination for black people, despite the almost complete destruction of its members. The scene blends a battleground and a field of desecrated crops. The only people left standing are a couple of farmers and St. Kara as a young girl, with wings and axe in hand, all of them painted in a white wash. St. Kara and the farmers — or founders — of the Republic of the New Afrika are bound up in the decimation, but Walker places hope in their ability to cultivate a new harvest from the small green sprouts shooting out of some of the bloody remains.
“The Last Memory of Birdie Africa” forcefully depicts the 1985 police-sanctioned bombing of the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia that left 11 people dead, including five children. MOVE was a liberation group, originally called the Christian Movement for Life, that advocated for a radical form of green politics and a right to self-determination for black people; Birdie Africa, also known as Michael Moses Ward, was the only child survivor of the bombing (incidentally, he drowned in 2013 in a hot tub aboard the Carnival Dream cruise ship). “The Last Memory” is an intense vision layered with charcoal rubbings of images of a child being strangled by a screaming soldier, firemen with hoses, collapsing bricks, white men in ties and sunglasses, and black women burning in flames. In the catalogue, Walker writes how the “hostile acts of violence, through political action, or intellectual and spiritual secession from the known world, as proposed by Philadelphia’s radical MOVE commune, or the 1968 proposal for the Republic of New Afrika, or the U.S.’s many varieties of separatists … has its own violent effect.” Her work honors the efforts of black separatist groups by making them a matter of significance, while also questioning whether they’ve internalized a Christian martyr narrative that has helped compound our culture’s violent social unraveling.
“Securing a Motherland Should Have Been Sufficient” builds on this idea by asking whether it’s possible to “secure a Motherland” without leaving someone out, harming someone, or destroying something. The massive triptych depicts a black woman strenuously hammering together boards in the ramshackle construction of what may be an ark, or perhaps a wall, only it’s built upon piles of desperate, rotting bodies. All the while, a little girl behind her undermines her efforts by deconstructing the structure with a crowbar. The girl reflects the self-destructive nature of separatist efforts and the need to resist the narrative of “securing a motherland” from the oppressor so as to avoid unwittingly becoming the oppressor one abhors.
While the thread of the victim/persecutor relationship runs through the majority of the work in The Ecstasy, it’s examined more deeply in “Easter Parade in the Old Country.” The oversize triptych depicts America’s insidious founding values through the lens of a parade, led by a cruel-looking white slave master who drags a black woman by a chain around her neck. The procession that follows includes a naked white man who resembles the slave master and seems to have martyred himself by nailing his arm to a wooden frame; a black woman on hands and feet with a limp white woman draped across her back; and, at the end, a small group of black people depicted in a stereotypical “primitive African” style who gaze at a solo black man confidently striding in the distance.
“Easter Parade” depicts the appropriation of a biblical theme for the purpose of racial subjugation. It gets to the core of American founding values and the ironic and undeniable interconnectedness of white supremacist and black separatist ideologies. Here, the Easter parade is no longer a unifying celebration of the rebirth of a savior, but rather a depressing struggle in which everyone is left to save or martyr themselves. This is the nihilistic vision of America that St. Kara reflects to us.
Meanwhile, with her axe or crowbar, St. Kara is the patron saint of deconstruction. The Ecstasy proposed that America’s founding is so destructive, only the further destruction of ideologies, narratives, and worldviews can offer any unifying and constructive possibility. But Walker did not leave attendees empty-handed. Instead, as if the viewer were on a religious pilgrimage, the last two works in the show were “Relics—Carving of a Dove” and “Relics—Two Doves of Peace.” They presented what’s perhaps the most incorruptible part of St. Kara: peace. In doing so, they preserved hope for a future communion.
The Ecstasy of St. Kara: Kara Walker, New Work was on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art (11150 East Boulevard, University Circle, Cleveland) from September 10 to December 31, 2016.