In 1992, a year before starting her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design, Kara Walker, then 22—and only five years from winning a MacArthur “genius” award—had an epiphany while looking at a nineteenth-century silhouette of a young black girl in profile. She later recalled that it “kind of saved me.”
Two years later, I had an epiphany in an MFA student’s studio in the same school, having just seen something—either a cutout silhouette or a drawing in what looked like chocolate—of a plantation worker. “What is that?” I asked. The young woman said, “It’s by my classmate Kara Walker.” I felt like a thunderbolt had hit the back of my head. This was an image of mad America. I was sickened, thrilled, and terrified.
There’s a good chance you’ll have some of those feelings, as well as a guttural jolt of what James Joyce called the nightmare of history, in Kara Walker’s bitterly beautiful, psychically naked, carnal charnel house of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The elevator doors open onto part of what saved Walker’s life—a 50-foot-long dream-doom-death machine, a tableau filled with a series of black-and-white cutout silhouettes. This is the first work Walker ever showed in New York. Seeing it here allows you to reexperience some of the toxic shock Walker released into the aesthetic air back then.
Even the title is contaminated: Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War As It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. From left to right, a genteel white couple bends to kiss; a pickaninny offers a headless chicken to a topless black girl who floats on her back in water; a severed head of a white man looks at a young black girl on her knees performing fellatio on a white boy; a black girl lifts her leg as two babies drop out of her; a white man performs analingus on a black servant. Rising above this rotten bog of cruelty and desire is a full moon and a black figure with a grotesquely swollen penis.
Just as Warhol saved himself by finding silk-screening—something that had always been there but that had been thought of as little more than a commercial craft—Walker employs the silhouette. But Warhol used repetition, off-registration, and color to breathe life into his technique. Silhouettes, on the other hand, are a very narrow and formal device, one that’s problematically monotonous, even with subject matter that’s as charged as this. Yet Walker has always struggled against the monotony of the form, expanding it into space, making it take over rooms, or physicalizing it via collage. Since 1999 she has deepened the psychic texture and narrative drive of her art in a series of films.
Three quotes from that great storm-bird D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature locate us in the Bermuda Triangle of Walker’s work: “The ugliest beast on earth is the white man”; “There are terrible spirits, ghosts, in the air of America”; and “Somewhere deep in every American heart lies a rebellion.” Walker pits the “ugliest beast” and the “terrible spirits” against her furious rebellion. What makes Walker’s rage so potent and complex is that she goes a step further, showing us the ways that sex and power, dominance and submission are inextricably bound up with and connected to one another.
Gone lets you know Walker means to release hell. She does it again with a wall text in the next room. It is a sort of sadomasochistic love-hate letter that begins, “Dear you hypocritical fucking Twerp.” It goes on to say, “Id like to thank you for giving me clothes when I needed them and food when I needed it and for fucking my brains out when my brains needed fucking. I hope that the time we spent in the quarters with my family sleeping nearby quietly ignoring what you proceeded to do to me—what, rather I proceeded to do to you—was worthwhile for you, that you got the stimulation you so needed, Because now That Im Free of that poison you call Life, that stringy, sour, white strand you called Sacred and me savior, that peculiar institution we engaged in because there was no other foreseeable alternative, I am LOST.” It goes on, ending with the words, “I am left here alone to recreate My WHOLE HISTORY without the benefit of you, my complement, my enemy, my oppressor, my Love.” These last eight words are the title of the show.
Near this harrowing text is a large single-figure silhouette, Cut, a work that can only be a self-portrait. It depicts a black girl in an antiquated skirt, clicking her heels and slashing her wrist with a straight razor as blood spurts from the wound. The antique dress is the silhouette technique, the razor is the tool Walker uses to make her art, and the blood is the fury, shame, and confusion of that “Historical Romance,” and that “stringy, sour, white strand” pouring from the “Young Negress and Her Heart.” The figure in Cut expresses herself in the mortification of her own self. Nearby, in a hypnotic sixteen-minute video called 8 Possible Beginnings, Walker combines the silhouettes with shadow puppets, drawings, and glimpses of her own face. At one point, a figure stumbles past “Dead Nigger Gulch”; at another, you hear Walker and her daughter murmuring, “I wish I were white.”
A lot of thoughtful people have been horrified by Walker’s vision of mad America. In 1997, the African-American artist Betye Saar mailed hundreds of letters that called Walker’s work “revolting.” Saar asked, “Are African-Americans being betrayed under the guise of art?” Well, Walker’s work is “revolting” because she doesn’t give us the familiar, palatable sanctimoniousness of beneficent white liberals, Old Black Joes, Uncle Toms, and shuffling, sinless Negroes. Nor does she give us the preapproved heroic imagery of Black Power, nor art-world irony. Walker gives us slavers, incest, cannibalism, mutilation, Sambos, and mammies—images that cannot speak without conjuring what James Baldwin called a past “of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear; … rage, hatred and murder.” She leaves us eternally in a world of near-mystic violence. Walker is like De Sade crossed with Edgar Allan Poe. She tells over-the-top, overdone ghost stories and love stories that remind us, in Lawrence’s words, that “the human soul must suffer its own disintegration, consciously, if ever it is to survive.”
Walker’s beloved medium is named for Étienne de Silhouette (1709–1767), an extremely frugal and unpopular eighteenth-century French finance minister. His policies caused his name to be attached to anything cheap-looking, like the faceless cutouts that were popular among those who couldn’t afford something fancier. Not much is known of De Silhouette’s ideology beyond penny-pinching, but given that the government in which he served was embroiled in the Seven Years’ War—fought mostly over the exploitation of colonial territories like Senegal and India—it’s hard not to guess that his opinions about race were less than enlightened.
Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love
Whitney Museum of American Art. Through February 3.