Kara Walker

By Aric Reviere

Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, MoMA, 1994.

Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, Paper, Overall 13 x 50′ (396.2 x 1524 cm). Gift of the Speyer Family Foundation in honor of Marie-Josee Kravis. Photo from http://www.moma.org/collection/works/110565?locale=en.

I wanted to begin my series of contributions to this blog with a bit of reflection upon my undergraduate work and a brief exploration of some of the fundamental intellectual questions I hope to pose in the year to come. In order to do so, I intend use Kara Walker’s 1994 work, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, as a vehicle for self reflection.

Walking into the first temporary exhibition hall at MoMA this past June, I was struck by this Walker work, which the curators installed on a gigantic stretch of wall. To say the work dominated the incredibly spacious gallery would be an understatement, but in typical 21st century fashion, a stream of visitors from all over the world merely glanced at the piece, posed for a snapchat to demonstrate their level of cultured privilege, and ultimately made their way into the adjacent chambers in search of MoMA’s treasure trove of modernist masterpieces. For me, however, the work presented an opportunity to view in person for the first time the palpable power of Walker’s aesthetic. The apparent paradox of a contemporary African American artist creating work almost exclusively in the antiquated Victorian tradition of silhouettes initially drew me to the work of Walker as a young Art History student at Davidson College. As a reductive art form, specifically in the sense of portraying a visual landscape through only the juxtaposition of black against white, the silhouette–at least in my humble opinion–possesses a highly racialized history. In other words, despite how the art form renders a figure as a black object in contrast to a stark white background, that figure almost exclusively in the history of the silhouette is presumed to be white. Further visual cues, such as dress and the physiognomy of a figure, convey the race, gender, and social status of the object of the artist’s gaze. Walker, however, transforms the genre into a visual platform of subversive alternative histories, clearly denoting through the physiognomy and dress (or lack there of) the diametric black versus white paradigm. This work specifically portrays a series of distinct vignettes in a larger collective story, but ultimately the delineation between the white, well dressed bodies of the figures in the far left section contrasts starkly with the rampant nudity and sexuality of the black bodies portrayed throughout the work with often hyper-exaggerated physical features including a gigantic penis and the stereotypical coon based imagery of over large feet.

Ultimately, Walker’s work represents a starting point for many of the issues I explored in my undergraduate thesis, a reaction to Paul Gilroy’s theory of the Black Atlantic. As I look forward to the work I will conduct this year, however, issues of racism, power, gender, and sexuality are at the heart of my academic work because in many ways these have each impacted my life in distinct fashion. Given my immense level of privilege as a white, American male from an upper middle class background, viewing the way the white, European Imperial/Colonial apparatus visually defines blackness in opposition to glorified constructs of purified and superior white identities speaks more profoundly to the perversion and exploitative nature of white patriarchal hegemony than it is representative of true black identities. For me, questions like how does European femininity in the 1920s re-appropriate primitivism and the sexuality of the black body to facilitate its own liberation from Victorian domesticity are central to understanding how European modernism, feminism, etc. emerged. The intersectionality of literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, the decorative arts, and (perhaps most relevant for this course) the history of dress all speak to the way certain power structures legitimize and perpetuate certain identities. That is what fascinates me and Walker’s discursive work subverts such a vehicle of hegemonic identity propagation to truly question how we perceive our world and its history.

Readdressing Black Photographic History in Victorian Britain

Last week I accompanied my ‘Fashion and Photography: viewing and reviewing global images of dress over the last one hundred years’ undergraduate class to see the recent exhibition, co-curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy MBE, at Autograph ABP, who are based at Rivington Place in Shoreditch. Black Chronicles II displays over two hundred never previously exhibited or published studio portraits of black subjects, including visiting performers, missionaries, students, dignitaries, servicemen or as of yet unidentified Britons, throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. The exhibition thus resurrects an unacknowledged archive of black photographic history in glass plate negatives and carte-de- visites held by the London Stereoscopic Company that have been buried in the Hulton Archive. Victorian Britain is re-presented in hauntingly beautiful and visually rich blown-up photographs, produced in a monochromatic palette and through a critical lens inspired by the influential writings of Jamaican born academic Professor Stuart Hall (1932-2014).

Highlights include portraits of Kalulu, the young companion to British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and over thirty group and individual images of members of The African Choir (South African performers who travelled around the UK between 1891-3). Whilst these photographs reference Britain’s imperial and colonial past, and it would be easy to interpret them in terms of exotic ethnographic ‘types’, they unequivocally demonstrate black subjectivity through the self-assured styling of the sitters. Identities are fashioned through the use of props, accessories and fabrics, and the crispness and clarity of the reportage highlights these various textures. Gestures and poses are also employed to enable the sitters to consciously and thoughtfully engage with the photographer’s gaze. So, whilst it is important to understand the social, cultural and political conditions within which the photographs were produced, it is also vital that we readdress the images in terms of the subjects’ self-fashioning and self-presentation in order to fully understand the shifting asymmetries of power at play in black portraiture, then and now.