Kara Walker does not give the story of Hurricane Katrina—which stirred up the American muck of racism, corruption, and ineptitude —an obvious moral. In her show, she intersperses her own pictures and art, which have a strongly contemporary air, with earlier drawings, paintings, and objects culled from the Met’s collection. Most of the older images depict black figures or convey the nightmarish, under-the-surface terrors of water, one example being Joshua Shaw’s apocalyptic painting from about 1813 called The Deluge Towards Its Close. Walker herself is best known for making images based upon the eighteenth-century tradition of the cut-paper silhouette. She does not emphasize the parlor-game elegance of that style, however, but instead uses silhouettes to make literal the dark shadows of history and the humiliating shame of racism. She’s particularly good at finding where the hidden discomfort lies: She’ll sometimes exaggerate goofy racist stereotypes about appearance. Of Katrina, she writes, “And always at the end of these tales, reported on the news, in newspapers, and by word of mouth, always there is a puddle—a murky, unnavigable space that is overcrowded with intangibles: shame, remorse, vanity, morbidity, silence.”
In this show, the chosen images seem to converse with one another, stimulating in the viewer a kind of wandering, imaginative reverie about race. For example, I’d always had a simple Art 101 view of Winslow Homer’s 1899 picture The Gulf Stream, which portrays a black man in a small, shattered boat surrounded by sharks as a typhoon approaches; to appease his public, which found this image frightening, Homer later added a ship on the horizon to suggest the possibility of escape. Suddenly, I wondered if this image served as an unconscious symbol of the black experience in the New World. And did the black figure’s ungainly pose and large feet contain a hint of racist thinking? (Walker’s nearby caricatural images made me think it possible.) And that civilized white man’s ship on the horizon, which was an afterthought . . . It could save a black man from sharks, but did it finally represent safety? “After the Deluge,” like “Hatshepsut,” yields more questions than answers.