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Kara Walker Showed Me the Horror of American Life

Antwaun Sargent

Antwaun Sargent

Kara Walker's art hurts—and that's a good thing.

The first time I saw Kara Walker's art, I felt like I had been assaulted. It was 2008, and I was a sophomore taking a visual theory course at Georgetown University. At the time, our class was focused on artists who were challenging notions of race and gender, and I was the only black student among more than 20 white kids. My professor, a white liberal woman, handed out a case study focused on Walker, which featured a photograph of her 2000 installation, Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On).

The cyclorama featured cut-paper silhouettes of enslaved Africans and their white masters amid light projections of rural wilderness. The scenes were disturbing: a slave child wielding a machete; a black woman holding a staff topped with a severed head; shadowy figures running at breakneck speed to escape the horrors around them. But what disturbed me the most was an image of a black woman having sex with her white master while a black child pulled at the man's shoe.

At that point, I'd never even heard of Walker. I didn't know that she had won a MacArthur "Genius Grant" at the age of 27, or that her incendiary art about this country's racial history would belong to the vaunted permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate, and the Guggenheim Museum. All I knew was what her image made me feel, and in that moment, it was shame. So much so, I broke out in tears. But my embarrassment only multiplied when the class started to discuss it. One white student thought the black woman being ravaged looked like she was actually enjoying it. "Look at her face," he said of the silhouetted woman. Heated with angst, I felt like I needed to stand up and defend that woman from the prying eyes of white folks. "People did things to survive," I said to the whole class, before storming out.

I realize today that the shame I felt sprang from my acceptance of respectability politics. At that point, I still believed that if black people represented themselves in polite, distinguished ways, white folks might actually see our humanity. I had hope that the institutional racism that allows for police officers to go free after killing us unarmed might somehow correct itself if artists like Walker just painted pictures of black people singing "Kumbaya." That was what I had always been taught. It was the message I got every Black History Month when we held up 28 or 29 black leaders and said they were proof that black people had overcome, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The debasement and indignity exhibited in Walker's Insurrection! flew in the face of those notions. It wasn't what I wanted to see.

Brand X (Slave Market Painting). 2017. Oil stick on canvas. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Brand X (Slave Market Painting) (detail). 2017. Oil stick on canvas. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Of course, I was not alone in my shame. The 47-year-old artist has long been dogged by criticisms, both from black artists and the general public, for the ways in which she depicts black suffering. The arguments against Walker's art have been led by Betye Saar, the criminally underrated assemblage artist whose socially conscious work appropriates and subverts racist tropes like the mammy or the pickaninny in an attempt to empower black people.

"The work of Kara Walker [is] sort of revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves, particularly women and children," Saar said during a 1999 PBS special called I'll Make Me a World. To Saar, Walker's art "was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment."

Even today, despite the fact that Walker can draw large crowds and praise from white critics like Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz, she still faces ire from black artists and the black community. In 2012, Walker's art was briefly covered with cloth and censored at the Newark Public Library. The 6-by-9 1/2-foot graphite and pastel on paper drawing—titled The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos—shocked some of the library's black employees.

The scene showed a tiny version of former President Barack Obama standing at a lectern giving his famed "A More Perfect Union" speech while brutal depictions of Reconstruction-era physical and sexual violence swirl around him. According to the artist, the work "conjures horrors of reconstruction and 20th-century Jim Crow-ism and the Tea Party." Newark library associate Sandra West, however, told the Star-Ledger , "It can go back where it came from." West went on to call the work "disgusting" and asked instead to "see something uplifting and not demeaning." The 2010 work returned to view after the head librarian, Wilma Grey, led the staff in a conversation about Walker's art.

Christ's Entry into Journalism (detail). 2017. Sumi ink and collage on paper. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Christ's Entry into Journalism. 2017. Sumi ink and collage on paper. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

While Walker declined to talk to me about her latest exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., her scorching artist statement doubled down on the contention that her work inspires. Sidestepping respectability politics entirely, Walker rejected the notion that she should "'[be] a role model'" or "a featured member" of her race and gender. In light of her new offerings, Walker predicted that "Students of Color [would] eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate [her] on social media."

Of course, some of them did. Hyperallergic's Lyric Prince, for example, wrote that the work was "at best, salacious," and commanded that Walker, who claimed she was "tired of standing up, being counted, tired of 'having a voice,'" go somewhere else and "sit down." But while standing up to be a savior isn't something Walker's willing to do, sitting down isn't, either. In the wake of her artist statement, it was easy to imagine Walker giving up her traumatic, triggering tableaux for something more banal, like naturalistic landscapes. The truth is, as Tariro Mzezewa noted in her review for the New York Times, "Kara Walker Is Tired of Talking. But Her Canvases Scream."

All the agony, energy, and violence of the streets of Charlottesville, Dallas, and Ferguson filled the gallery when I perused the selection of works in early October. Black-and-white figures and silhouettes of paper and linen, drawn and collaged, were there slanting their eyes, smirking, and contorting their faces with expressions of passion and pain. For those who didn't "get" the message, Walker wrote it out in one painting: "You Must Hate Black People As Much As You Hate Yourself."

Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit). 2017. Oil stick and Sumi ink on paper collaged on linen. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

The bluntness of that statement brought me back to something the artist told me in 2014, at the site of the former Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, during an interview I was conducting for Complex. As we both gazed upon her 35-foot-tall sugar sculpture that crossed a sphinx with a black mammy—and attracted more than 10,000 viewers per day—she said, "I don't make subtle work."

Instead, her art incites. Of the scores of contemporary artists who take on race as a subject matter, the California-born Walker is most successful when it comes to pulling at the foundations of this very nation, asking us through a blend of fact and fantasy to consider the full force of its consistent and constant brutalizations and humiliations. She accounts for what it must have meant to be a slave and a slave owner—and, more important, what it means for us to be their descendants.

Walker grew up in Atlanta. Her father, Larry Walker, was a prolific artist in his own right, one who gained regional acclaim for his drawings and mixed-media paintings that explored sociopolitical themes in the spirit of artists like Betye Saar. His Wall Series, for example, contrasts black bodies against physical barriers in ways that attempt to call out injustices and empower the oppressed.

For decades, Larry worked as the chair of the art history department at Georgia State. It was here that a teenage Kara Walker first came in contact with Betye Saar, her greatest detractor. As Larry told me last year during an interview for the New York Times, "We had an exhibition of Saar's work. At that time, Kara was 14 and she came to the exhibit and had a chance to talk to Betye. Saar was very outgoing and spontaneous in her encouragement of [Kara], continuing her work and doing what she was doing as an art person." He said, "I wondered years later whether Betye Saar remembered or knew she had that kind of contact [with Kara] early on."

Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b'tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. Cut paper on wall. 1994. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 Kara Walker

Walker went on to pursue art fiercely. In 1994, freshly graduated from Rhode Island School of Design's MFA program, she made waves over her inclusion in a group exhibition entitled, Selections 1994 at the Drawing Center in New York. In the show, Walker displayed Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, a scene of black paper-cutouts of figures showing a violent master-slave romance gone awry. There's a woman being beaten to death, a white master's penis looking as though it's about to explode, a black child playing with a corpse... Unrelenting carnage glued onto the gallery's chalky walls.

This early exhibition was like nothing anyone in the art world had seen before. It represented a radical, individualistic shift away from the collective concerns of Larry Walker and Betye Saar's generation.

Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On). 2000. Cut paper and projection on wall. Installation view: Moving Pictures, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2002. Photo by Ellen Labenski

Take for comparison Saar's most iconic artwork, the 1972 The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. It features the old racist symbol armed with a revolver and a rifle. The goal of the work is to transform the stereotypical depiction of a mammy into one of black power. Walker's Gone, on the other hand, depicts racism as an ongoing horror of mutual debasement. Where Saar saw the need to present distinct images of freedom to empower black people, Walker wallowed in pain to unearth ugly truths that we need to reckon with.

For Walker, Gone was a breakthrough. It was the first work in her oeuvre that established her use of the silhouette, a thing she told New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz "kind of saved" her. Large-scale silhouettes allowed Walker to map imposing, lifelike figures into scenes of brutality that draw audiences inside of the trauma.

Utilizing the silhouette, Walker quickly became famous for works like 1997's Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery or "Life at 'Ol' Virginny's Hole' (sketches from Plantation Life)" See the Peculiar Institution as never before! All cut from black paper by the able hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and leader in her Cause. In that work she recast the violence of chattel slavery as room-sized, cartoon-like black paper tableaux. The piece shows enslaved blacks seeking revenge against their white masters, while also having sex with one another and being raped by their masters. This work has been described in sensational terms, with some critics bringing up Walker's own upbringing and marriage to a white man as a way to attack the art. "What is troubling and complicates the matter is that Walker's words in published interviews mock African Americans and Africans," said artist Howardena Pindell at the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale. "Walker consciously or unconsciously seems to be catering to the bestial fantasies about blacks created by white supremacy and racism."

The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos. 2010. Graphite and pastel on paper. © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

In the summer of 1997, Saar launched a fierce letter writing campaign against Walker. She sent more than 200 letters to prominent black artists, politicians, and writers, advocating against her art. "I am writing you, seeking your help to spread awareness about the negative images produced by the young African-American artist, Kara Walker," she wrote. "Are African-Americans being betrayed under the guise of art?" Saar asked, before calling Walker's art "revolting."

"It was an extremely personal attack on my work and my family," Walker told me last year, reflecting on Saar's outrageous efforts. Walker, who still has a "faded fax" of Saar's letter against her, believes, "it exceeded art criticism and sort of became that I was a bad child or student of the previous generation."

Installation view: Kara Walker, Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season! Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, September 7–October 14, 2017. Photo by Jason Wyche. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Black female artist Shinique Smith, known for colorful installations and abstract mixed-media paintings that incorporate textiles, articulated to me the central question at the heart of criticisms like Saar's: "Who owns black pain?"

Walker's work grapples with the terror of American life, past and present. Calls to silence her representations box-in what it means to be black and reduce what it means to make art. In this spirit, Harvard professor and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. has come to Walker's defense. "Only the visually illiterate could mistake [Walker's work's] post-modern critiques for realistic portrayals," he said in the International Review of African American Art in 1997. "That is the difference between the racist original and the post-modern, signifying, anti-racist parody that characterizes this genre of artistic expression."

However, I was not "visually illiterate" when I first saw Walker's art—I was just scared. Afraid of what her work exposed about myself and my people. Its vulnerable and revelatory nature struck me in a way few works ever have. And so I ran away from it, in the very same way as so many of her detractors.

I was reminded of that initial, awful feeling while I walked through the solo painting show, SIKKEMA JENKINS AND CO. IS COMPELLED TO PRESENT THE MOST ASTOUNDING AND IMPORTANT PAINTING SHOW OF THE FALL ART SHOW VIEWING SEASON! The most jarring work for me was called The Private Memorial Garden of Grandison Harris. It depicts a disturbing scene wherein, beneath a dark sky, a grave digger unearths a black woman's corpse from a hole amidst a barren, brown landscape. A little black girl appears frozen, eyes wide without expression, playing with a toy bull beside the grave. Overseeing the scene is the white silhouette of a shoeless master holding a rifle.

The (Private) Memorial Garden of Grandison Harris. 2017. Oil stick and Sumi ink on paper collaged on linen. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
The (Private) Memorial Garden of Grandison Harris (detail). 2017. Oil stick and sumi ink on paper collaged on linen. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Grandison Harris is not some figment of Walker's imagination. He was a real man with children, who was enslaved and taught how to read and write by his masters. His primary task as human chattel was to exhume cadavers that were used for training white Georgia Medical College students. When Harris was freed after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, he continued doing his grotesque work. While we may never know exactly why, we can speculate that it has to do with the actual limitations of freedom after chattel slavery and the devil's bargains that some people made in order to carry on.

For me, the Harris piece characterizes how I finally came to terms with Walker's art. I had to accept that black people, then as well as now, live complicated lives. We enjoy many freedoms today while enduring the same horrors that defined Harris's time. And there is a need to show the full range of our humanity. That is what compelled the curators of the visual galleries at The National Museum of African American History and Culture, affectionately known as a "the Blacksonian," to hang Betye Saar's 1973 mixed-media work, Let Me Entertain You, above Walker's landscape, No World. What the museum communicates with this arrangement is that there is no one way to express blackness.

On Instagram, after Walker visited the museum in July, she posted a picture of her daughter smiling in front of the two works. The caption read: “In dialogue and not at war. Betye Saar work sitting over my print No World with my kiddo posed in front at the National Museum.”

It's been more than two decades since Betye Saar sent out numerous letters protesting Walker's art. Wondering if Saar's view of shared Walker notion of "dialogue and not at war," I reached out to the artist via her gallery, Roberts and Tilton.

"There are lots of works by Kara Walker that [Saar] does admire," a gallery representative wrote to me via email, "But she feels that her basic concept is still the same."

Three years ago, in the shadow of Walker's colossal sugar sphinx, after I finished our first interview, I turned off my tape recorder and told her about the first time I encountered her work—that awful classroom scene. I expressed to Walker the horror I felt at seeing her images, especially in that stifling, white environment.

She said, "I'm sorry." And then looked up at her sculpture, not yet seen by the public and asked me, "The work is difficult because the history is hard. But don't you want to see it?"

I do.

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UPDATE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Betye Saar's 1972 artwork The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, claiming it featured Aunt Jemima holding a shotgun and a grenade. She's actually depicted with a revolver and a rifle.