Race and Gender on Fifth Avenue

From left, Hatshepsut As Female King, early Eighteenth Dynasty; Kara Walker's Untitled (1996), both at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.Photo: From left, Peter Jan Bomhof and Anneke de Kemp/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sikkema Jenkins & Co./Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The air grows rarefied whenever people discuss the purpose of an institution like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The sermonizing phrases—“Nourish the human spirit” … “Display mankind’s noblest achievements” … “Enlighten, inspire, and awe the public”—fall naturally from the lips. And well they should. But this high-flown perspective can also develop into an earnest, deathly piety that has nothing to do with the life of art. Which is why I couldn’t help but laugh when I came upon the wall panel that opens “After the Deluge” at the Met, a show organized by the contemporary African-American artist Kara Walker that was inspired by the physical and social mayhem generated by Hurricane Katrina. “The story that has interested me,” Walker writes, “is the story of Muck.”

An institution that’s not afraid of Muck is healthy. The Met remains open to the questing, disorderly culture around it, reflecting contemporary concerns without cheating the past of its stillness or complexity. Its “After the Deluge”—a small exhibition—and its massive “Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh” demonstrate in different ways how a traditional museum can keep an eye on the obsessions of modern society, in this instance race and gender, without becoming tendentious. “Hatshepsut,” a scholarly exhibition in the grand tradition, is about a woman who can still fascinate a contemporary audience. Organized by Catharine Roehrig, it marks the 100th anniversary of the museum’s celebrated Department of Egyptian Art, and is built from the extraordinary collection of objects brought back by the museum’s Egyptian expedition in the twenties and thirties. The show focuses upon Hatshepsut (who reigned from 1479 to 1458 B.C.) but also examines the life and art around her. It contains numerous statues of her in different guises, together with many fine examples of jewelry, furniture, and other household goods.

Often likened to Elizabeth I, another successful female monarch in a male-dominated world, Hatshepsut came to power slowly and subtly. Her political career began as the wife and queen of the pharaoh Thutmose II, her half-brother. When Thutmose II died young, leaving only a small child (Thutmose III) to succeed him, Hatshepsut became regent. She did not cede the throne when Thutmose III, who was her stepson, came of age. Instead, she shared power as a co-ruler. Her reign brought peace and prosperity to Egypt. She expanded trade and restored many monuments that had been destroyed or neglected during political quarrels. She was also a great patron and builder who encouraged innovation. According to the scholar Dieter Arnold, her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri is a “masterpiece of pharaonic temple architecture and indeed of architecture worldwide.” The temple did not just repeat past practice. Set below magnificent cliffs, with three levels of dramatic colonnades, it seemed more open-faced than earlier Egyptian temples.

Hatshepsut remains a provocative figure partly because our own world, like hers, continues to be uneasy about women who strive for public power. Hatshepsut went to extraordinary lengths during her reign to legitimize the idea of a female sovereign. Despite her gender, she eventually assumed the role of a king, adding many masculine attributes to the image she presented to the world—wearing the king’s crown, commissioning statues of herself in male dress. She also developed an elaborate “mythology of her predestination,” according to the scholar Peter F. Dorman, to justify her rule. At the same time, he writes, she “never attempted to obscure her female essence.” Some years after her death, her co-ruler, the pharaoh Thutmose III, ordered many images of her destroyed, an unusual action that probably had less to do with personal animosity on the pharaoh’s part than with internal dynastic politics. He seemed to want to extirpate her from history and destroy the precedent of a female sovereign.

To its credit, the Met does not juice up the story with melodrama and History Channel razzmatazz. Viewers are left to their own thoughts. (Some will note that, about 3,500 years after Hatshepsut’s death, Hillary Clinton is struggling to emerge from behind a man’s shadow and find a way to create an image of female authority that works in her society.) Hatshepsut’s fluid, unstable identity is evoked by the wide array of imagery on display. At the same time, she does not appear as just a distant abstraction, in part because some statues are not idealizations but have a strongly individual character. In the statue the Met calls Hatshepsut As Female King, she stares out from the stone with authority and even, perhaps, a trace of humor. Her face and figure are undeniably feminine, but she looks as if she doesn’t have a doubt in the world. What a story she seems about to tell.

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.

Kara Walker’s show is hardly the Met’s first exhibit about race. The 1969 exhibition “Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968,” with works by African-American photographers like James VanDerZee and Gordon Parks, was one of the first at a major museum to recognize black artists in a fine-art context. But many people (including Romare Bearden) questioned its focus on photography to the exclusion of painting and sculpture. The catalogue generated the most fury: Jews protested anti-Semitic comments by a student essayist, and Mayor Lindsay threatened to cut off funding for the Met if it didn’t withdraw the book. (The Museum caved, but reissued the catalogue—with a new foreword—in 1995.)

Kara Walker at the Met: After the Deluge
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Through July 30.

Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Through July 9.

Race and Gender on Fifth Avenue