First Impressions: What Kara Walker Has Meant to Me and Some of Her Admirers
When I first encountered Kara Walker’s art, I thought it was about revenge, specifically the revenge of a stereotype on a sinister caricature of history. The piece I viewed filled an entire circular room. It was comprised entirely of paper cut-outs and had a distinctly disjointed narrative. The use of the negative and stereotypical representations of Black figures appeared satirical as though to say, “Now imagine if these roles were filled – would you really like the consequences? I think not.” In some of the images, the fictional stereotypes received the abuse that once abetted their creation; in others, they enacted vengeance upon their creators. The entire piece was implicitly ironic and contradictory, and I was captivated by its paradoxes.
Some other critics have taken similar standpoints. Whereas well-known artist Betye Saar (who loathes Walker’s work) perceives nothing but negative stereotyping and the perpetuation of racist imagery, her daughter Allison Saar (also a professional artist) sees Walker’s work as an vital political statement, intentionally reminding its viewers that “racism is subtle and persistent” in the present day. Christina Elizabeth Sharpe (a journalist who has covered Walker’s past shows) suggests that Walker’s work implicates the viewer in ways that allow the dichotomy of Black/white to break down and resuscitate the corpse of a body of cultural imagery that refuses to stay buried regardless. Others have commented that Walker’s art is reflective of popular culture’s subconscious narrative, and that her work exposes the seedy underbelly of a falsely benign mainstream.
Second Thoughts: Negative Criticism of Walker‘s Work
The popularity of Walker’s paintings, prints, and paper cut-outs has generated a great deal of backlash, much of it in the form of criticism from other African-American artists. Her detractors claim that her use of the slave narrative is cavalier and her application of negative stereotypes works to enforce a false history in the minds of both Black and white viewers. Critics are also disturbed by Walker’s success in the mainstream art world as juxtaposed against the marginalization of most other Black artists. In fact, some critics suggest that Walker is intentionally seeking to reinforce negative stereotypes – knowing that they appeal to a sect of wealthy white art dealers – and thereby sacrificing her own history and culture in order to achieve success. Indeed, this last claim is difficult to refute: Walker is almost inexplicably popular within the mainstream art scene, which substantially favors negative images of African-Americans over positive images, neutral images, or even non-race-related images created by Black artists.
However, according to Walker, reinforcing negative stereotypes is not her intent. Instead she seeks to investigate the impact that fictional racist narratives have had on her own psyche and – ultimately – America’s cultural imagination. She attempts to explore the ways in which these stereotypes are acted out by both whites and Blacks in a contemporary context.
It seems unfair to blame Walker for her success when her control over who takes interest in her art is (necessarily) limited. At the same time, it can be argued that Walker has some responsibility to consider who may or may not view her work, and how or in what context that work is displayed; and it is unfortunate that she does not take more care to refute poor (and/or inaccurate) interpretations of her images. For example, I find Jerry Saltz’s November 1998 review of Walker’s work in the Village Voice a gross misinterpretation which has, unfortunately, not been refuted. In his review, Saltz insists that a female figure in one of Walker’s cut-outs – a caricature who particularly and quite obviously references Josephine Baker – is “sexy.” His comment is entirely serious, devoid of any irony. His observation stands in direct contradiction to Walker’s stated artistic purpose.
Similarly, some other white critics appear a bit too enthusiastic to extract reinforcement of their own beliefs from Walker’s narratives. The subtexts of their reviews often seem to say, “Look! We were right all along – Black people secretly enjoy our negative stereotyping.” However, the perspective of this group of oblivious and insulting critics appears to be in the minority.
There is something essentially unfortunate inherent in Walker’s work in that it is in some ways an act of self-flagellation. In an interview Walker states that many of her works are based upon a self-loathing of her own identity that was fostered over time and emerged from its latency when she moved to Georgia as an adolescent. In some ways, this confirms the critics: the work contains aspects of self-loathing. It is an expression of a cultural double-standard as filtered through one woman’s psyche.
Autobiography and/or Political Statement?
Walker has used some of her art to wage a kind of war against detractors. In a certain watercolor she lambastes Betye Saar in both the text and title of the piece. Simultaneously she displays pieces that have an autobiographical flavor, as in “Why I Like White Boys” (1998) – a piece which is a self-proclaimed reflection on her own struggles with interracial dating. Of this she says, “I want the viewer to feel as though they’ve just encountered a History (with a capital H) that they Never knew — only to discover that it is mostly my Own (and my attendant longings and imperfections) they have just experienced.”
However, Walker has stated that although she intends her work to provoke, her primary goal is not to create a shock-effect, but to foster dialog. Walker says that her work is satirical and ironic, intended as social commentary but not comedy.
Conclusion: Present and Future
Walker’s work can be read many ways, but it is clear from all her statements that her intent is a satirical portrayal of the history specific to the individual. It is also apparent that in Walker’s vernacular, the “individual” is imagined not only as the artist but also as the fictional historical other. Walker’s work is simultaneously political and fantastical; it has elements of both imagined and real American culture and history.
However, because Walker is one of only a handful of successful African-American “art stars” she is perceived as a mouthpiece for the Black community, although that role is ultimately not one that she claims or desires to play. Therefore, there is an inherent likelihood that some viewers will (mis)interpret her intimate, imagined histories literally. And there is, indeed, the risk of perpetuating negative stereotypes, which may appear less satirical to some than to others. Walker has been pigeonholed as a Black artist who uses her work to address race – even if her primary object is to confront a battery of issues, of which race is only one. When Walker is publicly interpreted as a one-dimensional, race-obsessed artist, she is made into a token figure, silenced and stripped of her own depth.
Were there more examples of popular African-American artists who produce a variety of images (positive stereotypes, political, abstract work, and art about virtually any topic including and besides race) it is likely that the controversy over Walker’s work would decrease. However, if Walker continues to be perceived (by outsiders) as representing the entire community of Black artists (most of whose work is vastly different in subject matter and style), she will be criticized and resented. Tokenization is, of course, not Walker’s goal in producing and showing art. Unfortunately, art and reality have collided, and what is left is a lot of rather interesting art made by an individual and a system that frequently perverts that individual’s intent.
In the future, it is imperative that viewers be given more choices and are exposed to a cornucopia African-American artists whose works speak about a diversity of topics. It would be refreshing to have access an array of narratives that play with the spectrum between real (historical, factual) and imagined (a-historical, fantasy). At present, Kara Walker is defining the spectrum – in fact, it often seems that she is the spectrum. It will be interesting to witness the responses of future artists to the issues Walker has raised, and how Walker herself will cope with the concepts and questions of her own artistic output.
Bibliography and Internet Resources
Falconer, Morgan. “Kara Walker: Tate Liverpool.” Art Monthly July/August 2004: p. 41
Falconer, Morgan. “Screen Time: Kara Walker.” Art Review February 2007: p. 30
Hixson, Kathryn. “Kara Walker.” New Art Examiner April 1997: p. 41-2
Isaak, Jo Anna (Editor). Looking Forward Looking Black. Hobart and William Smith Colleges Press, New York: 1999. Pages 6-7 and 38-43.
Leslie, Richard. “Racism in the art world: a report on a report.” New Art Examiner September 1997: p. 44-45
O‘Brien, Barbara. “Shadows and Stories: Kara Walker’s History.” Art New England December 2003/January 2004: p. 16-17
Subotnick, Ali. “Kara Walker.” Make: The Magazine of Women’s Art Issue 92 2002: p. 25-7
Unger, Miles. “Contested histories.” Art New England June/July 1998: p. 29