As the elevators opened and I walked out onto the second floor of the Whitney Museum, I was confronted by this humungous black and white mural that featured a number of different images and scenes. The one that is pretty much the most shocking (and that’s saying a lot within this context) is that of a pickaninnied black girl giving head to lil ole Huck Finn. As if someone had just walked by me and snatched my gold chain, I seized up and held my chest. Shook and shaken, I was traumatized. But this is why I came here. This is what I wanted to experience, the kind of horror I needed to bring me back to center. And clearly so did most of NYC. This was last Sunday and it was the final day that Kara Walker's "My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love" would be here. I kept running into so many people I knew and recognized from BK and Harlem. The gallery was packed like it was a club opening, not an exhibit closing. Never mind it was Superbowl Sunday and the weather outside was sunny and spring like, everyone was curious, if not anxious to understand how race, racism, slavery and gender bias could work its way into the imagination in such a way to create not only brilliantly beautiful reinterpretations of the worse of our society, but also works that, in their unsettling horror, educated and empowered. Surveying Kara's black and white silhouettes and her letters, notes and sketches especially from "Notes From a Negress," all I could do to keep from crying, to keep from choking the life out of some innocent Caucasoid was shake my head and write in my journal.
Looking at a blog The Whitney created around this exhibit and browsing online and in my inbox, I found a number of interesting quotes about art, agency, resistance and power. Check it:
It's interesting that as soon as you start telling the story of racism, you start reliving the story. You keep creating a monster that swallows you. But as long as there’s a Darfur, as long as there are people saying 'Hey, you don't belong here' to others, it only seems realistic to continue investigating the terrain of racism. --Kara Walker
In Walker's work, slavery is a nightmare from which no American has awakened: bondage, ownership, the selling of bodies for power and cash have made twisted figures of black and whites alike, leaving us al scarred, hateful, hated, and diminished. --Hilton Als
I felt the work of Kara Walker was sort of revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves, particularly women and children; that it was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment. --Betye Saar
It is harder to speak truth to power than one might think. I spent the day visiting the show. i thought it was absolutely outrageous. i am trying to collect my thoughts. As somebody who has become an avid follower of the work of Kara Walker, I am amazed that so little has happened in terms of the black response to it. The films were so provocatively elliptical, the amount of material devoted to... Betye Saar's critique of her so disproportionate. I was shocked again and again by the obsessiveness of it and total lack of what I see as an adequate response. --Michele Wallace
As a 26yo African-American man, my personal reaction to Kara Walker's work is one of absolute disgust. I personally believe Kara's work carefully situates itself within the post-Civil Rights backlash against racial equality. It's a trickbag, occasionally adopting the rhetoric of "exposing" stereotypes for the sake of social justice, while at the same time further perverting these stereotypes for the tacit amusement of the predominantly white art establishment. Art can be a form of resistence but Kara's work is anything but. --Christopher
Some find Walker's hypersexual and hyperviolent slavery fantasias offensive because they resurrect and mimic not one but two offensive programs--the aristocratic illusions of insane hillbilly cotton farmers and the coonification samboification pickannyification and thingification of a people whose enslavement rendered the Bill of Rights a scrap of lies from the get-go. Walker's critics sometimes do seem to have forgotten something she apparently hasn't-- that her work can never be more disgusting, awful or cruelly creative than whatever the real thing was. The real problem people have with Walker's work may not be what's in it-- the real problem is that we really don’t want to see a 'behind the music' version of the heroic runaway slave narrative, one complete with all the hidden, historical and hideously un imaginable visuals that duly underscore why the heroic narrative is actually so damn heroic. --Greg Tate