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Skirts and issues: Kara Walker’s Gone, an Historical Romance of a Civil War As It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.

Doubt Provoking
By David Brickman

Kara Walker: Narratives of a Negress
Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, through June 1

How do you approach an exhibition by a MacArthur-certified genius noted for the inflammatory nature of her work with an open mind? This is the question that plagued me for weeks before I went to see an installation by Kara Walker at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery.

In the end, I learned my worries were unfounded—Walker counts on the viewer having a mind full of preconceived notions, prejudices, denials, you name it. And, contrary to what I expected, the artist does not have a story to tell, nor an obvious point of view expressed in her work.

Instead, Walker’s internationally acclaimed black-paper silhouette scenarios are purposefully left open to interpretation. She relies on us to provide the narratives in reaction to the startling—yet familiar—images she meticulously crafts.

With this in mind, the curators at the Tang have left the show very spare. Other than titles (evocative, but still ambiguous), a short introduction is the only text visible in the gallery. Though an accompanying catalog is crammed with essays, as well as curious typed notes made by Walker during the creative process, the viewer in the gallery is left to decide for him or herself what to make of this presentation.

Based on anecdotes I’ve heard, those reactions are often extreme: Political outrage, racial and sexual revulsion, condemnation from one side and supreme accolades from another swirl around Walker like a maelstrom. So, one goes into the gallery expecting something angry and vicious, something grossly manipulative.

Instead, one finds work that is rather subtle, even tentative. Walker is not a know-it-all art poser, winking slyly and laughing all the way to the bank, curators and collectors in her thrall—rather, she is a confused and conflicted artist, dredging up compromising images from the realm of her own fantasies and nightmares and putting them out there for all to see. Or is she?

The problem (and the strength) it seems is that Walker, who is African-American, is obsessed with bizarre ideas about the antebellum South, wherein the roles of master and slave are intermixed, monsters breed, children indulge in deviate intercourse, and nothing is morally certain.

Walker’s uncertainty, coupled with her willingness to exploit outrageous stereotypes, pushes a lot of buttons. She provokes intentionally, yet she still has her doubts.

While a lot of artists lately have been self-consciously constructing their work from art history, Walker derives hers from a combination of African-American history and popular culture. Narratives of a Negress makes clear references to the slave trade, Gone With the Wind and Br’er Rabbit. It also borrows artistic mannerisms from the 19th century, including the black-paper silhouettes and a drawing style reminiscent of the political cartoonist Thomas Nast.

But the fixation on the past is a ruse. Walker’s intention clearly is to engage Americans today, black and white, in a dialogue on race that has been buried since Civil War times, but still lies under the surface, festering. At least that’s the world she paints.

One small untitled piece in the Tang exhibition shows a young woman dressed in the finery of that past era, a kerchief knotted on her head, who sits demurely under picturesque tree boughs, her delicate finger poised above the keypad of a cell phone. Is this Kara Walker, caught between two worlds?

Another piece in the show, titled For the Benefit of All the Races of Mankind (Mos’ Specially the Master One, Boss) an Exhibition of Artifacts, Remnants and Effluvia EXCAVATED from the Black Heart of a Negress III, features a technique of light projection combined with the wall-mounted silhouettes that puts the viewer’s own shadow into the composition.

It is a tableau in which several figures do ambiguous strange things in the shelter of a big red tree; through our shadows, we become part of the picture, completing the narrative ourselves. Though the belligerent sarcasm of the title is undeniable, I find it impossible to determine what the image intends to say.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a 50-foot mural titled Gone, an Historical Romance of a Civil War As It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. Beginning at the left with a visual quotation of Rhett taking his leave from Scarlett (while some third party is already up her skirts), it goes on to feature a landscape dotted with distorted figures, dead babies, priapism and more.

The earliest piece in this show, Gone launched Walker’s meteoric career when it was first exhibited in 1994. This is only its second public appearance.

Another prominent feature of the exhibition is a series of 24 small watercolors titled Negress Notes (Brown Follies). The drawings caricature a panoply of people doing peculiar things, but don’t seem to follow any particular direction. It is like a stream of consciousness in which various vile and obtuse occurrences all get equal billing.

This and all the works in the show are reproduced in the lavish catalog that accompanies it (coproduced by the Williams College Museum of Art, which joined the Tang in organizing the exhibition and will host it next), as are numerous others from Walker’s apparently huge output.

One of the pieces shown only in the catalog perfectly sums up how I felt through the process of studying Walker’s work. It is a simple gouache drawing of a pair of hands holding up a sign. The sign reads, “from ignorance to arrogance and back again.”

The questions remains: Am I a better person for it?

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