Kara Walker, African/American

 
 
Written by Sydney Herrick

Kara Walker African American

Kara Walker (American b. 1969) 

African/American, 1998 

Linoleum cut print 

Miami University Art Purchase 


Kara Walker is well-known for her use of antebellum-era silhouettes that reimagine the horrors of the past through a repertoire of caricatured Black bodies. This choice of medium both cleverly subverts the crafts of nineteenth-century European women and, in its anonymity, allows Walker to generalize. Her work is not about specific individuals but the lasting effects of slavery on an entire population of people. Walker uses these grotesque, provocative narratives to expose the “universal inability to confront the past” as well as a way to facilitate her personal exploration of identity. 

In Walker’s 1998 print, African/American, she specifically explores the intersection of race and gender through a partially-nude “slave maiden,” complete with braided hair, beading, and a raffia skirt. African/American not only challenges classic Western representations of the female nude but also the long history surrounding the eroticization of the Black body. Walker’s black and white narratives only begin to allude to the duality present in her work. Consistent with the rest of her oeuvre, this piece addresses the dichotomy between man/woman, past/present, and African/American. The separation of the terms African and American with a slash is intentional, prompting the viewer to “confront the social, historical, and visual predicament of Americans with African blood” while also highlighting the constructed nature of identity.

Walker’s work has often been referred to as confrontational as it demands that viewers consume her violent, uncomfortable creations. Walker’s characters are visual stereotypes of Black (and White) individuals which make the viewer overtly aware of why, without the benefit of details, they’re able to decipher the narrative. She forces the viewer to confront their own prejudices. The duality of African/American requires the viewer to assign identity, a choice that is directly correlated to the image’s racial and gendered cues. The twisted hair, the jewelry, the raffia skirt, and the character’s countenance are all generalized constructions of what our society has identified as the features of a Black woman. In reality, there is nothing about this piece that indicates a place of origin, rather the vague portrayal of clothing, accessories, and hair highlights the sweeping generalizations made about the world’s most diverse continent. Walker is keenly aware of how such stereotypes are woven into our universal subconscious, making it impossible for a viewer to avoid her implications.  

Not only does Walker’s subject matter confront the assumptions of race and gender, but her choice of medium also pushes back against the dominant white male framework of the art world. In a lecture given at the Menil Collection in 2016, Walker confesses her decision to use silhouettes was an “act of resistance” to the white western patriarchy and a refusal to be the “mistress to the whole history of painting.” Walker instead appropriated the genteel parlor art of silhouetting that was practiced by middle-class women in the nineteenth century. Prior to the invention of the camera, the silhouette was a way to capture an individual’s likeness by representing the lines and forms of each face through cut black paper mounted on white. African/American is an example of Walker’s prints that echo the paper silhouettes of other works. Walker relies on both mediums to convey the same anonymity and simple complexity.   Eventually, this new art form became a way to perpetuate stereotypes and physiognomic notions of race, informing our present-day understanding of the caricature. 

Furthermore, the silhouette was the only art form taught to Moses Williams, a formerly enslaved man by the artist Charles Winston Peale. Working in Peale’s museum, Williams was trained in taxidermy, animal husbandry, object display and the silhouette, but because of his slave status Williams was denied training in the higher arts like painting. While Williams is now recognized for his skill, his work, consistent with other enslaved craftspeople during the time, was long accredited to the Peale family. William’s role in the history of this medium adds another layer of context to Walker’s work, deepening the impact of her silhouetted characters. Walker reclaims a medium once used to perpetuate racist stereotypes against Black individuals while also pointing to the history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and its erasure of the Black narrative.   

In the context of the exhibition, Walker’s work develops an interesting conversation with Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” which exposes the institutional oppression of women artists. The creation of this exhibition on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Nochlin’s work gives us the unique opportunity to take a more expansive and inclusive lens to the feminist art discussion. Following in the footsteps of postmodern feminists, Kara Walker’s African/American brings dimensionality to Nochlin’s original argument. Acknowledging that the experience of women is not universal allows us to examine the intersectionality of womanhood with other aspects of identity like culture, race, and sexuality. Put best in Stuart Hall’s Diaspora and Visual Culture, identity is not a “unifying oneness” but constituted through our “critical points of dissimilarity.” While individuals may have similar experiences, it is the points at which they diverge that truly comprise who they are. Therefore, it is important in our contemporary understanding of womanhood and feminism that we acknowledge and appreciate diversity rather than emphasize notions of essentialism and sameness. 

Hall’s premise seemingly contrasts with Walker’s work which intentionally employs stereotypes by flattening details and eliminating any impression of individuality; however, in an interview with Curator, Thelma Golden, Walker contextualizes her body of work explaining:

I got to thinking about the way Black people represent ourselves in our artwork and also about the ways that I was avoiding that representation in my work, trying to find some universal, which, when I took a step back, I realized was Eurocentric, white-male identified… some of the impetus for my work comes from reexamining, almost obsessively, social conflicts that have a racial or racist overtone, thinking about the way that the romanticized version of Black history comes into play as a dynamic. 

In her attempt to make sense of her identity and how it fits into the larger Black representational space, Walker created a mythology of silhouetted characters and narratives that satirized presumptions of similitude and otherness among Black people and Black artists. Therefore, while a piece like African/American can be analyzed from a feminist perspective, it cannot be removed from the Black representational space that it exists within. It is the point of intersection among Walker’s multifarious identities: Black, woman, American, artist, etc., that informs her creations and amends the myopic missteps of Nochlin’s original piece. 

In Nochlin’s essay she asserts that it was “institutionally made impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence, or success, on the same footing as men, no matter what the potency of their so-called talents, or genius.” Thus, it is not that women didn’t have the capacity to be great artists, but they weren’t given the opportunity to be. Upon the establishment of art academies across Europe and the prioritization of formal training, women were denied access to both. One reason for their exclusion was that in order to be a successful artist, one had to be able to accurately render human anatomy, but it was viewed as unsavory for a woman to lay their eyes upon a naked body in such a context. Furthermore, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, also known as “reclining Venus,” is among many sensual female nude compositions that became a sort of repeatable type for male artists during the Renaissance. These bodies did not belong to the women in the images but existed only to satiate the greedy male gaze. Knowing this to be true, a woman’s depiction of a nude body by an artist like Walker becomes far more powerful. It is an act of rebellion against the art historical canon and its institutionalized prejudice and sexism, an indictment of the white male gaze, and a reclamation of the female body. 

Kara Walker’s African/American fulfills the same purpose as she controls the depiction of nudity and exactly how much is allowed to be deciphered. The silhouette places the woman’s body right out of reach, providing rudimentary forms but denying fleshy tactility. She has authority over what the viewer sees and what they must imagine, once again recalling the assumptive tendencies of the mind similar to those suppositions made about race. In addition, the piece also works to critique the eroticization of the Black female nude. Stemming back to the beginnings of colonization and the slave trade, the Black female body has often been subject to violence and objectification, leaving the historical portrayal of people to their oppressors. Walker references this in African/American by presenting a singular woman floating in space, both on display and confined to the limits of the frame. 

Forcing the viewer to play the role of voyeur, Walker recalls the life of exploited African women like Sara Bartman. Born in South African, Bartman was taken from her homeland and paraded around Europe for her unusually large breasts and buttocks. During the time, scientists used Bartman’s appearance (later found to be caused by a condition causing the overproduction of fat and tissue) to substantiate racial stereotypes. Following this, the sexualization of the Black body and the perpetuation of stereotypes dominated our culture and became influences for caricatures like the mammy, the jezebel, and the sapphire.

In 1994 during her time at the Rhode Island School of Design, Walker began to develop her own rolodex of these characters to recreate narratives from the past. Walker’s decision to employ Black stereotypes in tandem with overtly violent and sexual scenes of the Civil War era has caused controversy amongst contemporary artists like Betye Saar who claim her work is unnecessarily grotesque and exhibits signs of “closet racism.” Advocates of Walker, however, insist that her work should only be perceived as fiction. Art historian, Hamza Walker calls Walker’s narratives “a Looney Toons world,” stressing “it has nothing to do with the realities of slavery.” Kara Walker herself has claimed her work as purely an imaginative fiction that allows her to “understand [her] Black body and [her] Black femininity as it has been interpreted [in Western art].” Walker’s work is not about historical truth, but a reimagination of the truth in which challenging narratives are amplified, still unruly yet grounded by the delicacy of the cut paper or inked print. 

Kara Walker’s African/American is a powerful addition to this year’s exhibition, Confronting Greatness: A Celebration of Women Artists as it operates in a feminist context by challenging the voyeuristic male gaze while also confronting historical misrepresentations of race. African/American epitomizes ideologies of contemporary feminists who emphasize that the multifaceted nature of identity mustn’t be disregarded when trying to contextualize the experiences of women. Walker’s silhouette compresses the horrors of slavery and Civil War era representations with her own interpretations of identity, providing a sense of clarity to complex issues and bringing light to the constructed nature of gender and race.  

Bibliography


"Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroes." The International Review of African American Art 14, no. 3 (1997): 3-16. http://proxy.lib.miamioh.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.proxy.lib.miamioh.edu/docview/1302770660?accountid=12434.

 

Golden, Thelma and Kara Walker. “A Dialogue.” In Kara Walker: Pictures from Another Time. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Art (2002) 44-49. 


Hall, Stuart. “Cultural identity and diaspora.” Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews, 21-33. London: Routledge, 2000. 


“Kara Walker Speaks About Her Art.” YouTube Video. 1:01:51. From the Risable Visual: Humor and Art, a biennial co-sponsored by the Menil Collection and the Department of Art History, Rice University, Houston, Texas. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clvQRQO5x7E 


Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists?.” Women, Art, and Power: And Other Essays, 145-178. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. 


Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. "Kara Walker, African/American." December 28, 2014. https://www.pafa.org/museum/collection/item/african/american.


 Shaw, Gwendolyn DuBois. “‘Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles’: Silhouettes and African American Identity in the Early Republic.” In Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149. no.1 (2005): 22-39. https://www-jstor-org.proxy.lib.miamioh.edu/stable/4598906. 


Shaw, Gwendolyn DuBois. Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 


Walker, Hamza. The Fact of Fiction: Four Works by Kara Walker. Landmarks and University of Texas at Austin’s Visual Arts Center. 1:12:34. https://landmarks.utexas.edu/blogs/kara-walker-fact-fiction