Magazine article Art Monthly

Kara Walker

Magazine article Art Monthly

Kara Walker

Article excerpt

Camden Arts Centre London 11 October to 5 January

Following Stephen Spielberg's patriotic abolitionist biopic Lincoln in 2012, Hollywood is set to bookend 2013 with two blockbuster slave narratives. At the start of the year came Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, a predictable mess of bloody postmodern pastiche and fanboy B-movie homage. At the year's end a loftier offering awaits: Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave, which, with its ennobling true tale of betrayal, bondage and triumph over adversity, looks destined to win at least two awards come Oscar night. Both films boast a form of unflinching realism, where the shackles are rusty and the sadism, though casually administered, is always brutally visceral. The culture industry, then, has briefly made a tell-it-like-it-is approach to slavery newsworthy. Unfortunately, media timeliness can't stop Kara Walker's first major UK solo show from feeling like it has come ten years too late.

Emerging in the mid 1990s, Walker quickly distinguished herself with a mature, fully formed aesthetic that deftly met the needs of the art market and the contemporary institution. Her distinct use of figurative black-and-white silhouettes, depicting scenes from America's history of slavery, addressed the commercial demand for a consistent and instantly recognisable style, and satisfied the burgeoning curatorial desire that all serious artists site their work within some field of contemporary critical discourse. But while marginalised female, minority ethnic and queer artists produced confrontational contemporary image-work to challenge misrepresentations perpetuated by the patriarchal, heteronormative and inherently racist mainstream, Walker's oeuvre offered something of a safer option for those looking to pay lip-service to the wave of agitation linked to the field of identity politics. Today her work still presents a direct engagement with atrocity and the roots of black oppression, but it is an exploration rendered palatable and historically distant by her signature craft-like practice of shadowy tableaux.

In the first of three rooms, a set of paper-cut silhouettes, depicting calamitous scenes of sexual perversity, deviance and violence, cover three large walls. These are the 'Wall Samples', hand-cut and installed by Walker on site. They capture her familiar cast of caricatures--the buck negro, the mammy, pickaninnies, southern belles and cavalrymen--in wacky freeze-frames that buzz with all the parodic cruelty of a troupe of parading circus clowns. In one section a black male fellates a white soldier, above that a stick protrudes from a man's anus, in another, black characters run to escape pursuing dogs. Here Walker is seeking to unearth and critique the representational foundations of racism by playing with stereotypes that continue to inform media representations of black subjects. But there is also a certain perversity in the process. The silhouettes, finely cut and carefully installed, invite aesthetic delectation, but to appreciate these works for their beauty, to laugh at the depiction of slavery as farcical panoply, feels uncomfortably inappropriate. Not because the boundaries of political correctness have been transgressed and the conservatism of the superego has been confronted, but because the works are grotesque. As such, Walker's 'Wall Samples' attempt to provoke the viewer into a recognition of the repressed, which in this instance would be identified as the idea, buried deep in the collective unconscious, that blacks conform to savage, sexualised and servile stereotypes. …

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