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MONTCLAIR, New Jersey — “Virginia’s Lynch Mob” (1998), the centerpiece of Kara Walker: Virginia’s Lynch Mob and Other Works, organized by guest curator Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw at the Montclair Art Museum, unfurls across a 40-foot curved wall in a parade of racially charged, morally fraught fantasies that offer no easy way in, or out.
Walker’s brilliance at what Shaw, in her book, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (Duke University Press, 2004), terms “signifying the horrors of historicized, fictionalized, and mythologized slavery in a uniquely African-American way,” prevents us from viewing “Lynch Mob” through a single lens. Shaw writes:
As the literary historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. has theorized about the slave narrative in his germinal book The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, Walker was making “the white written text speak with a black voice, [which] is the initial mode of inscription of the metaphor of the double-voiced.”
Shaw’s research reveals that the silhouette was not only a popular form of portraiture for 19th-century white society, but also a cheap method of identification attached to an enslaved person’s bill of sale in the event of an escape.
Through the doubled signification of the “nostalgic and deceptively innocent form of the silhouette” — coupling white aggrandizement with black oppression — Walker “redraws issues of race […] rendering all of her characters black cyphers.”
The exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum takes the form of a mini-retrospective that emphasizes the silhouettes but also includes at least one example of her prints, books, sculpture, and films. There are also two small watercolors and a large triptych, “Sketch for an American Comic Opera with 20th Century Race Riots” (2012) in pastel and graphite. The show doesn’t pull its punches, presenting Walker’s “double-voiced” racial and sexual stereotypes engaged in absurd and startling forms of cruelty, self-inflicted and otherwise.
One such image, that of an African-American child with a shotgun muzzle in his mouth, blowing a hole through the back of his skull and sending a plug of brain, along with his Civil War era cap, flying behind him, is among the most shocking. Its graphic specificity calls to mind the defining act of violence — the piece of skull flying off the head of a Korean grocer, shot by a young black man — in Menace II Society, Allen and Albert Hughes’s debut feature from 1993, five years before Walker made “Lynch Mob.”
To make a leap from the Civil War to the Hughes Brothers, whose film, like Walker’s art, combines formal elegance with head-snapping eruptions of brutality, underscores her work’s simultaneity between past and present; every action is pregnant with history, and William Faulkner’s much-quoted line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” is an indelible fact. We need to look only as far as the recently concluded Senate race in Faulkner’s home state of Mississippi, where the execrable Cindy Hyde-Smith defeated Mike Espy, her African-American challenger, by nearly eight points.
Recalling Hyde-Smith’s compliment to one of her supporters, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” we need to remind ourselves that “Virginia’s Lynch Mob” wasn’t made yesterday, but 20 years ago.
That remark was soon followed by the publication by Politico of a group of Facebook photos posted by the Senator, then State Agriculture Commissioner, during a 2014 visit to the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library, where she posed with a Civil War musket and a Confederate soldier’s cap — the same style worn by the child-suicide in Walker’s installation.
Because the child is rendered as a silhouette, we can’t tell whether his cap is Union or Confederate, or whether it’s a soldier’s cap at all. The uncertainty veiling even a small detail like this one is an indicator of the power that ambiguity bestows on the silhouettes, which is the reason why I find conventionally fleshed out images like “Sketch for an American Comic Opera with 20th Century Race Riots” less compelling, even if they are more emotionally expressive in their drawing and brushwork.
In “Sketch for an American Comic Opera,” it’s plain to see who is doing what to whom, as plantation owners waft up from Hell to blast a group of African-Americans with a fire hose, Bull Connor-style.
This is not to say, however, that ambiguity is absent — for one, we can’t tell whether the black characters are the rioters who have set fire to the city behind them, as a white gaze might assume, or whether the whites are the aggressors, assaulting the blacks in a “police riot” of the kind that rocked the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention of 1968.
The stream of water assaulting the African Americans bursts mysteriously from the vest of a white slaveowner, who wears the fire hose over his shoulders like a boa as he plunges its nozzle into the mouth of a grotesquely caricatured black man. The exaggerated lips and eyes of this character contrasts sharply with the dignity of the faceless victims of the water blast, as well as the figure resembling Josephine Baker, one of Walker’s motifs, at the bottom of the left panel, who wears a feather boa mirroring the hose draping the shoulders of the slaver on the right.
These confusions, or compounding of meanings, depending on how you wish to look at them, are magnified a thousandfold in the silhouettes. In a single-image cut-paper work like “Consume” (1998), with its young boy sucking the tip of a banana that’s part of a skirt worn by another Baker-inspired character, we are left questioning whether it’s a banana, a misplaced breast, or a hermaphroditic phallus. For that matter, we may also puzzle over why the woman wearing the banana skirt is sucking her own breast. At the same time, the abstracted forms of the two figures invite us to step back and admire the triangular balance between them, hinged by the ball of hair atop the woman’s head.
Perhaps the most formally ravishing piece in the show is the silhouetted linocut, “African/American” (1998), in which the body of a nearly nude woman is depicted on a diagonal, head down, inexplicably falling. The black monochrome of the silhouette obscures whether we are looking at the figure from the front or the back, and while the wall label tells us that the work “has been described by Walker as ‘your essentialist-token slave maiden in midair,’” we might also view her as lying prostrate, fighting off a rapist or beckoning a lover.
Similar dualities, complications, and paradoxes run rampant through “Virginia’s Lynch Mob.” In a conversation with the Montclair Art Museum’s Chief Curator, Gail Stavitsky, I learned that Walker has never commented on the content of the installation, which the museum acquired in 2016, leaving us to draw whatever conclusions we wish, if it weren’t so resistant to conclusions at all.
Among its unanswered questions is whether “Virginia” designates an individual or the state; I assumed it to be the state, given that its date, 1998, marked the run-up to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton — the culmination of the culture wars of the 1980s and ‘90s, whose leaders included Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority, the televangelist pastor of a megachurch based in Lynchburg, Virginia.
If we read the piece from right to left, following the direction of the marchers (“Lynch Mob” is one of the installations that curator Shaw has termed Walker’s “pageant” works), we witness an upheaval akin to the rites of Saturnalia, the Roman late-December gift-giving celebration (adapted by 4th-century Christians into the Christmas season), in which the world is turned upside-down and slaves become masters and masters become slaves. (A similar transformation is also the theme of Testimony, Walker’s short film from 2004 included in the show.)
The right side of the work is dominated by white townspeople racing toward a public hanging, prodded by a bald, bearded man swinging a noose like a lariat over his head, as if lassoing a cow (accentuating the slaves’ status as chattel). But a third of the way through, at the point where a black man tugs at a noose around his own neck, the roles seem to reverse, and a naked African-American woman is suddenly hoisting the body of a naked white man on a stake. A black woman and young girl wear the hoop skirts of their oppressors, and at the head of the parade, another young black woman, wearing a grass skirt, shoots like a cannonball into the sky, rocketing out of a drum major’s big bass drum and nearly decapitating him in the process, with a musical note fluting from the deep, open wound in his neck.
But, again, the details are confounding. Why is there a tree branch sprouting from the naked rump of the first white boy on the right? And is that a set of castrated genitals in the hand of the smaller boy beneath him? The bearded white man swinging the noose bends backward from the weight of a barefoot black boy clinging to his neck, while the black man gripping his own rope drags another boy behind him, who turns with interest toward a petite white girl presenting him with a Ku Klux Klan hood.
The boy-suicide, crouching near the front of the parade, is one half of a pair of children wearing Civil War caps. The other is a white toddler, his oversized headwear clearly belonging to an adult, pointing an impotent popgun at the doomed black boy as he turns his fearsome rifle on himself.
The spiral of oppression and self-destruction embodied by these two children has only escalated in the 20 years since the work was made, which have also seen the upended order of Walker’s Saturnalia churn the body politic into a psychotic new normal. We don’t know whether the woman blasting out of the big bass drum is escaping her slaver’s chains or her mortal coil. But at least she’s getting the hell out.
Kara Walker: Virginia’s Lynch Mob and Other Works, curated by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, PhD, with the assistance of MAM chief curator Gail Stavitsky, continues at the Montclair Art Museum (3 South Mountain Avenue, Montclair, New Jersey) through January 6, 2019.