FIGHTING DIRTY: a look at Kara Walker’s first UK show and her upcoming curatorial project in Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art

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As I enter, there it is spelled out in bold lettering on the glass doors:

“We at Camden Arts Centre are Exceedingly Proud to Present an Exhibition of Capable Artworks by the Notable Hand of the Celebrated American, Kara Elizabeth Walker, Negress.”

Even reading this title to Kara Walker’s first major solo UK show is itself somewhat discomfiting; its phrasing carries airs of times past, of printed playbills, hyperbolic flatteries, hinted exoticisms. Then there’s that word: Negress. Clearly a self-referential title, there is no way to be unaware of the racial background of the author, and so to exclude dangerous swathes of political intent, but the discomfort still remains. Negress. How can anyone in this day and age be using such a word?

 Image

Kara Walker, Auntie Walker’s Wall Sampler for Civilians (detail), 2013. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York © Kara Walker

This unsettled sensation does not diminish with a walk around her show at the Camden Arts Centre, London. The works shown fall into three broad categories. Firstly Walker’s classic silhouettes, here titled Auntie Walker’s Wall Samplers, depict graphic and often upsetting images dealing with race and gender in a style reminiscent of a book of fairytales, embedding atrocities from the time of slavery into the more genteel products of a bygone time. They spread across the long walls of the first gallery, their collective impact a confrontation with the entering viewer, who is then forced to walk the full length of the gallery and digest the slightly hysterical shock of each image before reaching the next room.

Dust Jackets for the Niggerati are expressive and shocking images rendered in graphite for texts that do not yet exist, untold narratives embellished with exaggerated blackface images and KKK hoods. Finally we see a broken story told by shadow puppets, Fall Frum Grace: Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale, a harsh re-telling of the myth of the white woman raped by a black slave that justified many lynchings and attacks. Walker renders the white woman a southern belle seductress, the slave a victim who ends up castrated and burnt by her white lover. The puppets flap about clumsily, Walkers hands often visible and her occasional bursts of laughter an audible reminder of the artist who is telling this horrible tale.

Kara Walker, Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale (film still), 2011. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York © Kara Walker

The theme uniting these three sections is one of examination of a range of cultural myths, and the viewer’s complicity in their interpretation. The silhouettes’ evocation of black characters using thick lips and obscenely sexualised bodies and white characters with angular bodies and pointed noses is unsettlingly effective, and the fact that those add up to a racial profile that I find so easy to identify forces me as the viewer to admit that those associations are there, somewhere in my mind. Her puppet players are wildly exaggerated like Javanese shadow-puppets, their interactions clumsy and obscene; all characters rendered in stark black on white become as flattened and distorted as the stereotypes they parody.

Some aspects of Walker’s work have attracted serious criticism, notably from a number of other African-American artists. A book has even been put together pitting harsh criticism against heavily edited positive reviews to question her work, one claim against her being that using such imagery reinforces the stereotypes that she parodies. In an essay written to accompany the show Hari Kunzru comments that “black artists are supposed to represent positively,” that a candid exploration of the nasty stuff lurking in one’s subconscious is a “privilege reserved for white artists, who can be shocking without being accused of dragging a whole bunch of other people around with them.”

The Daily Constitution 1878 (2011), by Kara Walker. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York © Kara Walker

Walker in an interview with the Guardian describes her desire “to resist the pull to be doing what’s expected of me as a black artist.” Her new curatorial project Ruffneck Constructivists, opening in February at the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia, focuses on the eleven contributing artists as “defiant shapers of environments” and seems to celebrate a kind of thuggishness; she describes them as resistant bodies, remaking the world not through conscious thought or softness but “one assault at a time”. In her early oil paintings and in the expressive graphite drawings in this show Walker uses the power-associations of certain art traditions in this remaking, telling her own bold narratives while rejecting the restrictions of carefulness.

Describing herself as an unreliable narrator, it might be possible to characterise Walker’s work as irresponsible but only in the assumption that she should be “representing” African-American artists as a group, as the question at 3.38 in the above-linked interview tellingly expects. Walker’s work is an attempt to self-define in a historically white-dominated world that expects a certain kind of work from a black artist, and shows her refusal to fit into a polite and submissive box; the upcoming Ruffneck Constructivist project looks to be a fascinating extension of that attitude, exploring structures and space as experienced by a diverse group of individuals.

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