Kara Walker makes me sick.

by Titus OBrien July 4, 2008

the finishing touches were still being applied, I took an
early walk-through of Kara Walker’s retrospective “My Complement, My Enemy, My
Oppressor, My Love” at the FW Modern. I was needing to prepare for an upcoming
class there for 5-8 year olds. Uh – I think we’ll steer clear with the kiddies.

I think everyone else ought to line up to see it, this time-traveling
phantasmagoria of visceral, unrelenting horror. Within a few seconds of immersion, I felt
my solar plexus (and probably my anus and gonads) contract, and more than once
I found myself wincing, involuntarily looking away from images and


wish I was in town for the member preview (I was off on assignment). Holy cow.
What did the wine-sippers have to say about it all? “My goodness, Melba, that
little "pickaninny" being doubly penetrated sure is beautifully
articulated!” “Yes; but tell me, is that fat(pregnant?) white man with a vagina
being orally pleasured  – or is he/she being tortured? Giving birth? I
just can’t tell.” Tits, cocks, shit and more shit; births that look like
shitting, sex that looks like birthing, atrocities that look like games, games
that look like death, death that looks like birth. Black, white, male, female,
sacred, profane, the ego and the id, all in one big roaring angry
interpenetrating confused cluster fuck, as illustrated by Walt Disney studios.

the latest in an unbroken stream of shows by African American artists at
the Modern, and by a long shot the most provocative. I’d be curious to see how
the white supremacists that were so outraged by Kehinde Wiley’s recent show
react to this one. Which underscores why I think her work and this show are so
absolutely necessary. Race is obviously still a (the?) pivotal issue in our
national psyche, and the intractable wounds of slavery are even now too often
blithely glossed over or ignored.


Show curator Phillipe Vergne marvels in his catalog essay how "nearly a century and half after the Emancipation Proclamation so little has changed." What? Stereotypically over-reaching "liberal" blather like this is utterly infuriating, to me, and to some African American activists. By denying the momentous progress that has created this moment (when a black man is our likely next president,) and a society evolved to a point where Walker can even create this kind of discussion at the highest level of cultural discourse, Vergne actually confuses the importance of what she has accomplished, giving ammunition to those who would deny its necessity, and power.

walker3.jpgWe do need to be directly confronted with the looming, pervasive shadow material inherited from a history of injustice, those persisting incarnations that so often obscure the light of the progress that has indeed been made. Walker drags it all out, kicking and screaming; indeed, the very notions of light and dark are maybe her true medium, constituting the very metaphor running right through it.

While Walker is easily tied to an Expressionist lineage –
one can’t help but see precedent for her endeavor in artists like Otto Dix and
Max Beckman, and certainly in Goya – there is something much more calculated,
knowing, and even nuanced that that. She owes as much or more to political
conceptualists like Adrian Piper and Hans Haacke, or the calculated feminism of Judy Chicago.
As clearly didactic as her work is, she folds in layers of researched historicity and formal/narrative ambiguity that avoid an effect of total bombast. Just partial. 

isn’t to say it’s purely bitter medicine. There is a pervasive, surprising
lyricism and bawdy sense of humor that leavens even the heaviest scenes,
actually acting to drive the knife even deeper. The show title sums up her
cross-purposes — and those embedded in the American subconcious. Technical variety
(including some of those now ubiquitous overhead projectors on the floor) keeps
you visually intrigued, it’s all impeccably crafted and installed, and the
whole thing isn’t an unlike a trip to a family theme park or history museum.
Only just in hell.

perfect outing for the Fourth of July weekend!



(images from the Whitney website, from the exhibition’s stop there.) 



anjali July 11, 2008 - 17:30

Next time you attempt to address racism as “liberal blather,” perhaps you should refrain from using terms like pickaninny. Just a thought.

tobrienwriter July 12, 2008 - 07:41

you completely missed the point.
did you actually read the whole piece?

anjali July 14, 2008 - 14:45

Does that mean we’re taking back “porch monkey” as well?

tobrienwriter July 15, 2008 - 13:47

“pickaninny” is an anachronistic, now culturally-agreed offensive term for a black slave child. It’s offensive because one, it’s race specific, and two, because slavery is against the law AND EVIL- duh. Walker and others in the catalog use the term in this context. She works in stereotypical images, tropes, a twisted sort of shorthand, most of it geared to disgust and revolt. Aunt Jemimahs and Steppin Fetchits and yes, Uncle Toms. Many of them engaged in “subversive”(see those quote again?) sex acts. Do you seriously think I’m using the term colloquially? I guess I overestimated some folks ability to account for their own knee-jerk factor.

To somehow reduce what I say here to calling racism nothing more than “liberal blather” (please contemplate why saying “stereotypically “liberal” blather” means something completely different) demands some acrobatic feats of misinterpretation.

Yes, New Orleans is now the go-to example of the persistently heinous racism that still pervades our society – but there are plenty to choose from, in aspects of judicial system, our educational system, our electoral system, on and on. Racism exists. It is very, very bad. We need to actively address it, personally and socially, nationally and internationally. Walker’s show gives us a chance to do this, in a profound and nuanced fashion, instead of a polarized, finger-pointing one. I applaud her. Here, and right up there, in the post I wrote?

But saying that we have made no progress in the last 140 years (as the curator does in what is otherwise a fine essay) is just stupid. In 140 more years, there will still no doubt be more progress to be made. The point I trust is sufficiently bludgeoned.

tobrienwriter July 15, 2008 - 14:13

“On the other hand, show curator Phillipe Vergne marvels in his catalog essay how “nearly a century and half after the Emancipation Proclamation so little has changed.” What? Stereotypically over-reaching “liberal” blather like this is utterly infuriating, to me, and to some African American activists.”

ps I believe in affirmative action, gay marriage, gun-control, the legality of sodomy and weed, and would consider moving to Sweden if it weren’t for the whole months of darkness thing. However, the Vikings have a few centuries of slaughter and heinousness on us – we’re way behind on the socio-political learning curve. As one Zen master smilingly used to say witnessing violent and selfish behavior: “More suffering necessary.”

another tired cowboy July 15, 2008 - 18:24

Her show is a strong one that I am fairly sure M. Auping had NOTHING to do with. Hooray for Andrea Karnes!
I went on a ‘Free -Wednesday’ and and it makes me reconsider the type of work I make. So few shows in galleries or museums can do that. Most shows aren’t worth the gas that takes to get you there.


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