A photograph of Obama behind a podium hangs below the image of a glaring white cross, aflame. Black-and-white figures taper down the wall unceremoniously, but beautifully balanced amid scuffs and marks. This is a photograph of the artist Kara Walker’s studio wall, and she’s showing us the process by which her latest controversy was created.
Ever since she became the youngest recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1997 at 27, Walker has been considered “controversial.” Established artists — primarily (and it’s noteworthy that this fact is always emphasized) a handful of prominent black female ones — rejected her work as racist, offensive, even a willing “weapon against the Black community,” said artist Howardena Pindell. Today a professor at Columbia, Walker has also been called “influential” — one of TIME’s 100 most in 2007, in fact. “Walker’s vigilance has produced a compelling reckoning with the twisted trajectories of race in America,” wrote the artist Barbara Kruger. “She is brave.”
In this conversation, emphasis is frequently put on Walker herself, who’s continually seen as a representative stand-in for her work. That work includes silhouette images, shadow puppetry, video animation, and distinctive large-scale black paper-cut Victorian silhouettes have covered the walls of numerous museums and public collections, including the Guggenheim Museum, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt. But Walker has always contended with her audience’s perhaps overactive perception of her; producing oil paintings in graduate school, she became tired of professors asking why her art didn’t look like her, presumably because it didn’t seem to deal directly or exclusively with “black experience.” With fame, she has become a kind of symbolic arena in which we wrestle with and work through questions of artistic representation, of race and history, of offense and censorship. Kara Walker, a black female artist investigating and playing with race, gender, and violence through her work, is herself the ground of contention.
Her latest controversy concerns a drawing titled “The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos” (this type of long, sentence-like naming is common for Walker), currently on display in the reference room of the Newark Public Library in Newark, New Jersey. The large 6-by-9½-foot drawing presents a “Guernica”-like chaos of anguished forms in graphite and pastel. But instead of the Spanish Civil War, the subject is race in America. The burning cross and Obama at the podium are there, as are images of struggle and abuse from slavery through Reconstruction and Jim Crow — most notably, a black woman whose face is being forced into the groin of a white man. As with the work’s title, these images complicate Martin Luther King’s faith in evolving justice.
While for many it clearly seemed an honor that art collector Scott London loaned the work, not everyone was pleased when the drawing was first displayed in December 2012. Multiple staff members complained, and the work was covered. Library Director Wilma Gray called a staff meeting and later explained that the two-week-long covering of Walker’s piece was meant only to give the library enough time to discuss and figure out how to move forward. “Censorship or Common Decency?” blazed the Star Ledger’s headline.
Gray invited Walker to the library to discuss her art before an audience on the evening of March 7. The well-known scholar and artist Nell Painter prompted Walker both with her own questions and those compiled from others, followed by an audience Q&A. Walker brought a slideshow of images, many from the 2011 exhibition Dust Jackets for the Niggerati, in which “The moral arc …” first appeared. She begins by showing us photographs of her studio during the creation of the work.
“There’s a too-muchness about it,” Walker says, responding to a question about why art that addresses race and gender is so often considered inflammatory and rejected out of hand. “Dealing with race you’re already entering the terrain of too much,” she explains, “and when you add gender to that, because violence is implicit in each, the viewer might feel overwhelmed.” Add to this the “too-muchness” that Walker has earlier described as pervading all visual art: the mute quality of drawing that potentially makes the viewer feel more complicit in what’s going on, and the fact that images come at the audience in their all-at-once entirety, whereas for the artist, they’ve been unfolding over time. Looking at the finished product might feel less like an autonomous action than a confrontation, even an attack.
Hence Walker is letting us, the audience, into her studio, her process. One question that has continually preoccupied her, she says, is how to be adequately black, or how to be black at all. This quandary — as much about external recognition as self-perception — has been reinvigorated in the Obama Age, when discussions about race, or the lack thereof, have the potential to expand the conversation as much as they threaten to collapse history. Concepts like “colorblindness” and “postracial” are proposed, rejected, and proposed again, while black writers and their works — among them Toure’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? and Baratunde Thurston’s How to Be Black — offer experience and anecdotes as a way of attempting to navigate the question of contemporary blackness. To Walker, black has long seemed “a solid thing” whose meaning evaded her. Her project as an artist, then, has been to try to unpack this difficulty in understanding.
Her first silhouette work, “Gone, An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart,” plays with the melodrama and racial dynamics of Gone with the Wind. “The silhouette lends itself to avoidance of the subject — of not being able to look at it directly — yet there it is, all the time, staring you in the face,” Walker told Art21, describing the technique’s handling of the uniquely “bizarre construct of racism” in America.
The folkloric aesthetic of silhouettes and shadow puppets bridges the temporal gap between the antebellum South and Walker’s biting and sometimes humorous handling of its legacies. “Humor has always been a kind of problem with my work, hasn’t it?” Walker replies to one question in Newark. “All of my work catches me off guard,” she says, and in this sense, it’s a success: “When I surprise myself, I often end up laughing.”
Silhouettes also allow Walker to reject prescribed identities while accepting limitations, she explains. Always interested in Beaux–Arts style, on the one hand, and grand historical paintings and cycloramas — “overwrought pontificating in visual form” — on the other, Walker recognized that both forms were considered “second class citizens of the art world.” So she made “riffs on types,” as she refers to them — self-reflective images once or more removed from immediate reality as well as the period they refer to, in which self-perception and historical myth can be simultaneously present and at odds.
“Is it even okay to make drawings of figures — of black figures — ” in the contemporary social moment in which we find ourselves? She wonders this aloud toward the beginning of the night in a soft voice and returns to the question again later on. Her tone is gentle and assured, even while admitting uncertainty. (When one audience member says they can’t hear her in the back, Walker acknowledges her soft-spokenness and explains that she is “a little anxious.” Her voice gets louder as the night goes on but never abandons its innate quiet authority.)
Walker’s question is not merely rhetorical, and to realize that points to the absence of defensiveness in her uncertainty. She may be a little anxious, but her openness is calming. Considering these images, this history, we may all be a little anxious. After the 1997 MacArthur controversy, Walker found herself pondering the audience’s responsibility in responding to art and wondered if it might not be beneficial for audiences — not just black ones but all audiences — to respond strongly to artistic representations every now and then.
Slavery and its legacy are our common national history, not a niche issue, and images that engage with it would be inadequate if they weren’t sometimes viscerally provocative. Discomfort is often central to the complaint that something is “offensive,” but it can be provoked by a range of sources — clever satire or subversive art, hate speech or objectionable politics. The particular breed of discomfort isn’t always immediately distinguishable. “The promise of any artwork,” Walker said when her drawing was covered in December, “is that it can hold us, viewer and maker, in a conflicted or contestable space, without real world injury or loss.”
Requesting that an artist discuss her work can feel incongruous or reductive, in part because overemphasizing the intent can only ever amount to partial explanation. But considering an artist’s process, as well as an audience’s discomfort, may illuminate the differences in our vantage points from behind or before the canvas — may help us process the “too-muchness” of it all.
Kendell Willis, a library employee initially upset by the drawing, said he had a better understanding of the library’s position after meeting with officials. “They said there are a lot of things in artwork we don’t want to talk about,” he explained, “and that made absolute sense.”
Kara Walker in conversation with Nell Painter took place Thursday, March 7, from 6 to 8 pm at the Newark Public Library (5 Washington Street, Newark, New Jersey).