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Introduction: Kara Walker—No/Yes/?

Although our individual approaches were different, Betye Saar and I tried to encourage dialogue about Kara Walker’s work in 1997. I received an enraged letter from a very well known African-American artist, demanding I back off—this from someone I had not even thought of contacting. I wrote back saying that he could not silence me . . . that I had a right to express my opinion. I also received a violently condescending, aggressive phone call from an irate, infuriated white woman art critic after I returned from South Africa in 1997, where I had given a paper at the Second Johannesburg Biennale Conference, about the use of negative stereotypes by African-American artists. During the call she basically, as bigots often do, aggressively grilled and questioned me about what I had said at the Biennale, reprimanding me for daring to refuse to jump on the pro-negative-racial stereotype Kara Walker band wagon and be an agreeable collaborator or remain silent. It was clear that she would find a two-way conversation involving verbal reciprocity intolerable. As is often the case when dealing with aggressive people, it had to be their way or else; ours was a one-way “discussion” where I had no recourse but to “answer” her questions and just listen. There was the bullying aspect of the power of “white privilege” behind her and the “mighty” power of the establishment. It was an anti-dialogue conversation.

In 2007 I was approached by Cynthia Navaretta of Midmarch Arts Press. She also had noted how the mainstream media was flooding us with enthusiastically positive reviews of Kara Walker’s work, that there were individuals upset and concerned by the strong-arming of the dialogue by the powers that be and that there seemed to be an ongoing squelching and silencing of dissent of anyone who dared to voice a negative critique. (During the interim between 1997 and the present, I had heard of white dealers who had considered showing African-American artists who had been warned by other white dealers and chastised for even considering the idea of showing the work of African-Americans and warned that white patrons would not patronize their galleries, if they saw African-Americans there.)

Cynthia Navaretta bravely, in an increasingly hostile climate attempting to silence all those who questioned the manic intensity of the positive criticism of Kara Walker, invited me to gather artists, writers, critics, arts administrators, collectors, and curators and ask them if they wanted to submit a comment of any length. Soon it became a vital grapevine, and people were contacting me wanting to vent their outrage at what appeared to be a manipulated effort to force a type of work, which humiliated the African-American community, down our collective throats, mocking any efforts for positive change. The sponsors of this charade seemed to see the scene as some kind of an amusing masquerade—a covert racist way of pushing, in name only, an African-American artist, while at the same time keeping the status quo or less, and appearing publicly, to the outside world, to be generous and even liberal or progressive.

“. . . . I divorce myself from the cause before
I really let it sink in.
Means having to admit my weakness
Over and over again
Means having to submit to a higher law
Instead of resting
Easy on fat wallets and
Good times . . . “

From a catalogue published by MIT Press for the exhibition, Kara Walker, Narratives of a Negress, shown at MIT, Skidmore, and Williams College Museums, 2003.

During the gathering of the writers, the pressure was on from some members of the insider art world of museums, art galleries, auction houses, and mainstream art periodicals to discourage participation in the book. One writer was intimidated and told not to participate (and worse) by a white museum professional. Some of those approached by the publisher to edit the collection refused to participate and made a hasty retreat. No white women writers would contribute their comments and some were downright hostile. The final group of contributors consists of men and women artists, writers, collectors, arts administrators, poets, former museum curators, performance artists, and educators. The essays included are “no-pro” commentary, with added sections of quotations from the mainstream media, plus an appendix section of historical information. Since dialogue has been squelched and intimidated and, in some cases, even threatened, we have opened a blog where anyone who wishes may enter an opinion and dialogue back and forth on an ongoing basis. You do not need to sign your name. The blog address is:

Kathy Halbreich, Director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the originating institution for the Kara Walker show that traveled to New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in October 2007, stated in the October 8, 2007 issue of The New Yorker that Walker was “heroic under the criticism,” referring to the rumble Betye and I had created. She perceived the criticism as “generational.” “I understand that these women came of age when ambiguity was poison, but their efforts to silence Kara Walker made me sad. Even as I sort of understood the context out of which this speech arose.” The sense of underlying condescension is clear—Halbreich’s own experience was to narcissistically define my personal experience and perception as if she were in my skin. She had pronounced herself in charge of my and Betye’s reactions, limiting it to her own “acceptable” personal boundaries and assuming we as artists would have no other recourse but to bow to her opinion. I find this so common with white commentators in the art world corporate arena: a basic command, “Be silent,” or just plain, “I am white and I am in charge and what I say goes about your life experience.” They take no notice that there are KKK and worse on Long Island where some of us work (as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center which states that there are 26 active hate groups in New York State). I had a humiliating experience when I was almost thrown out of the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton in 2008, because I was not a member (and the only non-white visible at the moment) at a champagne reception for a panel on which I was a participant. I have sadly run into this in the women’s movement, where white women cannot tolerate your experience, so by shouting one down and demanding a superior rank based on assumed “white privilege,” they demand your silence or compliance. So that they can remake history in their own image and then accept you, so that we “together” can have a good laugh over genocide.

Another side is the disrespect shown older people of any race; Saar and I are not teenagers. This is a basic racism 101 when even a white child may disrespect elderly non-white persons, no matter their age. A parallel example of this has been brought “front and center” with the election of Barack Obama. White, and usually male, commentators in the mainstream media refer to him as Barack and to his wife as Michelle. But they refer to the former president as Bush or George Bush. It is demeaning to call non-white people by their first names no matter their age, education, rank, or status. But it is fascinating to note that in spite of this unspoken rule, Kara Walker is usually referred to as Kara Walker. (As was once done to some non-Europeans in South African under apartheid who had “honorary white status.”) Behind closed doors—who knows.

Years ago, during the early days of the negative reactions and even requests and petitions that Kara Walker’s MacArthur Genius Grant be rescinded, a woman spokesperson from the MacArthur Foundation brushed the protests off in a comment in a publication I have since buried, and stated that protests of Kara Walker’s work were “political” (and therefore should be dismissed). (See David D’Arcy’s article “Kara Walker Kicks up a Storm” in Modern Painters, April 2006, p. 59.)

Robert Hobbs, one of her collectors and also the commissioner for the São Paulo Biennial in 2002, nominated her to represent the US in the United States Pavilion and then simply announced in an article in Art Papers, April 2002, that the controversy was over—as if in saying it was over, made it so.

When the dialogue is not two-way and someone must be dominated at all costs, even threatened and shunned, I feel one must ask why must the “conversation” be skewed, and to whose benefit? Who gains from this pathological control? What do they not want you to see or be aware of? There is no room for airing authentic opinions in the same arena. It is fairly obvious that the art world is run somewhat like an authoritarian “religious” cult with clear lines of power and certain taboos set by the corporate sector. For example, it is taboo to have truly genuine work by non-whites and women that is threatening to white and male supremacy and permits exception only for an artist with an elaborate pedigree, a huge résumé, a powerful parent, or one who has married “well.” In most cases, the “god” of this religion is money and power and endless Teflon.

In an excerpt from the Art21/PBS interview “The Melodrama of ‘Gone with the Wind,'” Kara Walker says, “It’s that feeling of needing to make this offering as a form of truth telling, no matter how awful it is . . . and then sometimes that work is just ridiculous and silly and weird.”
Interviewer: That sort of truth-telling must be exhausting. Do you ever question yourself: Why me?
Walker: I never say, why me? I gave myself this job. (LAUGHS)

However, in The New Yorker, October 8, 2007, a pro-Kara Walker article by Hilton Als, “The Shadow Act,” includes Skip Gates of the Du Bois Research Institute, Harvard University stating: “No one could mistake the images of Kara Walker . . . as realistic images! Only the visually illiterate could mistake their post-modern critiques for realistic portrayals.”

In an interview on NPR Radio on March 7, 2008, African-American talk show host Farai Chideya quoted Betye Saar’s criticism: “I felt the work of Kara Walker was sort of revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves, particularly woman and children, and that it was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment.”

Walker’s response: “I think the first thing that’s striking to me is that I’m not making work about reality. I’m not. I am making work about images, you know, I am making work about fictions that have been handed down to me, and I’m interested in these fictions because I am an artist, and any sort of attempt at getting at the truth of a thing, you kind of have to wade through these levels of fictions, and that’s where the work is coming from.”

What does her image of a nude black woman having sex with the skeletal corpse of a Confederate soldier accomplish, except to create a fiction that becomes a truth in the eye of a beholder eager to continue the lie of the racist? Or the work which shows a nude, pregnant African-American with amputated legs, without any hope for help, presented with cartoon-like eroticism? Or the Black child gleefully having intercourse with a horse—who is that fiction for? How many reviews and articles have I read that state that she portrays “Black Life,” yet in the first quotation above during her interview for Art21, she literally says she is a truth-teller? This is very troubling, especially since work which is factual and about resistance is pushed away by the art world establishment, shunned and derisively mocked as annoying in its reminder of the country’s ugly history. It is preferred that we ignore it, and as Robert Hobbs notes in an article in Art Papers about Kara Walker, that the African-Americans he spoke to were “philosophical” about slavery.

To step aside from the controversy surrounding her work . . . it might be interesting to note that the invention of paper, according to Susanne Schlapfer-Geiser, began in China around 100 A.D. . . . and Scherenschnitte began moving around as a medium in 750 AD with “Chinese war prisoners taking paper making into the middle east and Europe.” Scherenschnitte was popular in 1000 AD and during the “Sung dynasty (10th–13th centuries), using white, black and colored paper and silk.” Then, Scherenschnitte moved from “China to Austria by way of Indonesia, Persia and the Balkan Peninsula, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, Germany and the United States through the Pennsylvania Dutch.” She discusses the silhouette and how it was used on Egyptian grave stones and Greek vases. “As mentioned in a number of mainstream reviews, Étienne de Silhouette, minister of finance under Louis XV, recommended silhouettes as more reasonable replacements for costly miniatures.” His budgeting earned him a reputation as being cheap and his name became synonymous with that quality. Schlapfer-Geiser states that later silhouettes were “filled in with India ink.”

In the library of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan, one can see works by Aaron Douglas (1899–1958) created for the WPA utilizing silhouettes. The four-part work is titled Aspects of Negro Life (1934). He explored the use of the silhouette throughout his career as a Harlem Renaissance artist, employing them in murals as well as in smaller works on paper. (See: Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, edited by Susan Earle, with essays by Kinshasha Conwill, Dr. Richard Powell, David Driskell and Dr. Amy Kirschke, 2007 and Art of the Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black Americans, with essays by Mary Schmidt Campbell, David Driskell, David Levering Lewis, and Deborah Willis, 1987.)

In early January of 2009, I went to Strand Books on a whim and found a catalogue of the work of the white South African artist William Kentridge (William Kentridge: Tapestries, Yale University Press, 2007) published for his show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with essays by Gabriele Guercio, Okwui Enwezor, and Ivan Vladislavic. The catalogue shows his silhouettes of black cut-paper collages, drawings and tapestries, all dated 2000 to 2007. They are full-figure silhouettes and were also shown in a huge animated light board in a Times Square, New York City installation titled Shadow Procession, 2001. The silhouette tapestries are called the Porter Series and are dated 2006. In Gabriele Guercio’s essay “Becoming Aware in a World of People on the Move,” he says, “Shadowgraphy ranges from the simple conjuring of a rabbit’s shadow with one’s hands to the sophisticated devices used in the theater, paintings, viewing machines, photography, and cinema. Humans seem to have an enduring fascination with shadows. In ancient and modern cultures alike, they are regarded as double, virtual bodies or reflection of the soul, and they have been studied in both science and art for what they can tell us about perception. . . . Pliny, who had previously noted that the art of painting was also said to have begun with tracing someone’s shadow (The Natural History 35.15) positively associates shadows artistic representation, as well as with an image’s peculiar ability to account for absence, if not death, by preserving someone’s effigy. . . . ”

In 1999 I gave a talk at the Detroit Institute of the Arts’ “Representation/Indentity/Resistance” concerning my work and the work of Pat Ward Williams, whose work is about resistance to the brutality of racism. During the talk I addressed the legacy of negative racial stereotypes and referred to a German children’s book brought in by one of my graduate students whose parents were Holocaust survivors. The book distorted the Jewish people and African people with sadistic racist images and were intended to convey the meaning of punishment to children. Der Struwwelpeter, written by German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffman was widely read in the 1920s and 1930s. It described the physical mutilation of children as fitting punishment. It frightened me when I thought about the holocaust that followed.

Years before my knowledge of these books, I met a European adult with a prosthetic limb that replaced one that an enraged parent had amputated as punishment when he was a child.

I do not see the exultation of negative stereotype images as being in a vacuum. Negative images are usually created and disseminated as part of the oppression of people of color in order to justify stealing their land, labor and resources.

At the request of the editors of Art Papers magazine, in 2002, I expanded a letter to the editor in response to “A Conversation with Robert Hobbs.” I forwarded the letter to the white male editors but they refused to publish the letter and would not answer my calls or emails. (Art Papers chose Kara Walker as guest of honor for their fund raiser benefit held at Atlantic College of Art in 2002.) The letter contained the following comment:

I feel that the popularity with whites of negative stereotypes is a combination of restricted gaze and constricted empathy. Children are taught by their parents who to respect and who not to respect. . . . Who to gaze on favorably and who not to see. I feel that work that uses the negative stereotype against African-Americans is welcomed by the art world because the negative image is a reflection of what the child was permitted to see or imagine. A person of color was not seen in a positive way, if see at all. To have a person of color give you those images as if to say that they agree with your imprinted gaze, makes the work hypnotically enticing for whites. One is off the hook. No need to worry about racism (or remedies). This person of color appears to agree with the restricted gaze and the total lack of empathy taught by one’s parents and enforced by white society at large and the media. (If you changed your gaze and became empathetic, a white ran the risk of being called an “n_____ lover” or worse.)

The commentary submitted is far different in intent than the mainstream commentary. It is not necessarily flattering, nor written to keep investment values high or to raise the values of one’s collection so that your tax deduction is increased, or to keep advertisers happy and unthreatened. You are welcome, as mentioned earlier, to include your comments one way or the other on the blog:

I would like to thank Cynthia Navaretta of Midmarch Arts Press for her support, encouragement, and patience as the project progressed, unfolded, and more and more individuals wanted to contribute their points of view. I thank all of the family and friends and acquaintances who dialogued with me about the issues and thank also those with whom I argued. This has been a complex project that revealed itself to me more and more complicated as I thought, read, and explored a number of issues. I felt that the mainstream art community was holding on to the murky past, shoving any threats to their dinosaur sovereignty under the rug. In an attempt to “maintain” safety and perform business as usual, when they can see all around them hints that if things do not change for the better, we will all be forced to cling to life boats made of air or drown, headed for the bottom on the Titanic.

Excerpted from Kara Walker No/ Kara Walker Yes/ Kara Walker ? (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 2009).