At the opening reception for Kara Walker’s multimedia project “Song of the South” at downtown LA’s REDCAT Gallery, the artist adopted the eerily detached voice of a little girl playing with her dolls. “Help us! Help us!” she cried while perched behind a semitransparent screen maneuvering little shadow puppets that had been overcome by a rear-projected flood. The silhouetted figures, stars of both Walker’s new 16mm film and this puppet performance, looked like wispy elves of the American South, with cotton blossoms for heads and leafy black limbs, carried by water and wind to who-knows-where. As the audience sat rapt, Walker breathed disquieting life into her iconic work: a dark, anachronistic fantasy of African America, made all-too-real in two dimensions of black and white.
Apt timing has been a hallmark of Walker’s intriguing and often controversial career, and this puppet show, long-scheduled to inaugurate her new film and installation, happened to coincide with the disaster in New Orleans still unfolding several days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Amid one of the greatest racial spectacles of our time, the artist performed with an elusive air of mimicry and mystery. Walker, whose work is by now quite familiar to art audiences, consistently offers stark and grotesque images of race without the pressure release that an agenda of activism or the catharsis of emotion can provide. After introducing some of the puppet characters who appear throughout the interdisciplinary project, one of Walker’s shadow figures, a black woman protagonist who seemed to be a surrogate for the artist herself, opened the floor for questions. Ending some awkward silence, a well-meaning white woman near the back of the room asked for a response to the natural disaster at hand. The questioner commented, a bit tritely, that the botched emergency relief was tinged with racism. Walker and her puppet responded with utter indifference, mocking the question and questioner, and finally adding with razor-sharp sarcasm, “I can tell you are a very good person.”
It is this iconoclastic attitude that permeates Walker’s black-and-white film, 8 Possible Beginnings or the Creation of African-America: A Moving Picture by the young, self-taught, Genius of the South K.E. Walker. In eight short chapters, various creation myths are explored and espoused. Here again, shadow puppets enact the narratives in a natural extension of Walker’s past work with silhouettes. The film though has a charming amateurishness to it that is lacking elsewhere in Walker’s body of work. This is due in part to the 16mm medium itself, which always reminds one of a film-school exercise. But also, the piece is made with a loose, do-it-yourself technique and tells its story in disjointed moments, all of which add up to an impressionistic experience rather than a concrete narrative arc. This overall lack of slickness helps lighten the load of Walker’s heavy content while dislodging the artist’s post-colonial mix of influences from academic stodginess. Despite its treacherous race-baiting and some frank pornographic moments, the film is accessible and quite entertaining.
One live actor, much voice-over dialogue, and a few appropriated antique images, such as an old illustration of a white ship crew throwing naked black bodies overboard, add to the film’s mix-and-match effect. The puppet characters, with their crude animation, are obviously manipulated by hand and recall folk techniques such as the epic storytelling of the Javanese Wayang Kulit, perhaps the most well established shadow-puppet tradition in the world. (Wayang is a Javanese word meaning “shadow” or “ghost” and is a theatrical performance of living actors, wayang orang; three dimensional puppets, wayang golek; or shadow images projected before a backlit screen, wayang kulit.) The film also conjures early cinema, with its static presentations, old-timey music, and intertitles. This blend refocuses the entire project on the 19th century elements of content and form that Walker has utilized all along in her reexamination of colonialism and American slavery.
Of course, Walker’s is neither the slavery we’ve learned about in school nor the antebellum world that Hollywood has wrought. Here, a magical realm is presented as both real and metaphor, a semi-history that incriminates all and exonerates none. In the film’s version of the middle passage, the slaves, after being thrown overboard, float like rubbish upon ocean waves. An island appears nearby, but as it rises out of the water, what seemed like an oasis is actually the tropical headdress of a giant sea goddess who opens her mouth and swallows the errant black bodies. They float down the long chasm of her digestive tract and emerge out the other end as fertilizer for the South. In another sequence, a large black buck with a huge protruding phallus meets a smaller man with a smaller phallus and presumed white authority. The master fellates the slave in shadow relief and finally consummates their shared passion by shoving cotton up his rear end. A midwife in mammy attire eventually arrives, and, though she may know “nuttin’ about birthin’ no babies,” she effectively delivers the offspring of master and slave from the black man’s ass: a new breed of black cotton. And so the stories go.
Images such as these have ensnared Walker in controversy and have earned her the disapproval of some notable artists who have preceded her. Betye Saar, an LA-based, elder stateswoman of African-American art, who has been a key innovator of the assemblage tradition, told PBS in 1999 that she felt Walker’s work 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.” Though Saar, who is now 79, has been among the most outspoken critics of Walker, she has not stood alone in making such charges. As in other areas, African-Americans in the art world who have enjoyed any career success have done so after generations of struggle against racist institutions. Those who identify with this effort may question the meteoric swiftness with which Walker, who was born in 1969, has been embraced by these same institutions. In 1997, Walker received a prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Award at the age of 27 and has consistently shown work in major museums and private galleries around the world, including recent projects at the Tate gallery in Liverpool, England, the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, contemporary art centers in Berlin, Rome, Mexico City, and Tel Aviv, and for the 25th International Bienal of São Paulo, Brazil, not to mention regular commercial exhibitions at Brent Sikkema Jenkins and Co., the gallery that represents her in New York.
Since her emergence in the late ‘90s, Walker’s work has remained strikingly consistent. Riffing off of a 19th century portrait form, Walker has used black silhouettes on white backgrounds to create an endless array of caricatures whose magical-realist arrangements prod the psycho-sexual wounds of racism. Rather than engaging in some kind of corrective representation that politically realigns these old-fashioned images for the common good, Walker tends to take these fallacious icons even further than any self-respecting minstrel show would, never shying away from the battles that are constantly waged on all sides regarding what can and cannot be said about race in America.
Walker emerged on the art scene at the end of a transformative moment in the late-‘90s, when the rarity of pioneers like Saar had given way to a small but healthy crop of African-American artists—folks like Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson who had already begun to make names for themselves. The artists of this post-modern mini-movement tended to combine traditional techniques with the stylistic languages of conceptualism and minimalism in order to critique cultural identity. But while Ligon’s paintings or Simpson’s photographs have often interrogated representation from a position consistent with liberal politics, Walker’s work from the start seemed to revel in a wealth of wrong-headed images, images like those that have historically been used to justify racism (again, think minstrel theater or in relevant film terms, The Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind (1939), or Disney’s Song of the South (1946), an obvious source of inspiration here; REDCAT is an acronym for Roy And Edna Disney/CalArts Theater). The cleverness with which Walker wields these images creates the troubling possibility that white audiences will simply enjoy the work and not understand that it’s wrong to be racist. More than critiquing racism itself, Walker seems to be challenging the notion that Western art can indeed be recalibrated to socially redeem itself. This can read as very cynical or very smart.
In a final scene from Walker’s film, a little boy demands that Uncle Remus tell him a story else he’ll have the old slave whipped. Projected on a screen surrounded by plywood trees that have been painted black, creating a gallery installation that looks like a Brechtian bayou, the film continues this familiar push and pull of representation in which institutions define the starting point for what one can say about oneself. Given the images of tortured African Americans our mass media have recently had occasion to parade across our collective view, Walker’s wicked, violent, and un-idealistic work may be more realistic than her critics have given her credit for.