Kara Walker discusses issues of race and gender in her work with silhouettes

A black slave girl accepts the attentions of a Confederate soldier who courts her on bended knee; a plantation owner with a peg leg stabs one child with a saber while another child seems to emerge from his belly; an angel vomits on two escaping slaves beneath her; a tower of three women and a baby suckle on each others’ breasts; a flock of acrobats contort impossibly in mid-air as they dive through a burning hoop into a barrel of water. These types of images, depicted in stark and beautiful silhouettes, are typical of the fantastic and bizarre murals of Kara Walker, an increasingly prominent contemporary artist who delivered the first of the 1960s Scholars’ Lectures in Art on Feb. 12.

Although she has worked in a number of styles, Walker is particularly well known for her silhouette pieces: delicately rendered, almost life-size scenes usually composed of cutout black paper pasted onto a white gallery wall. The technical style is a direct quotation of the silhouette portraits that were popular with the aristocracy in 18th century Europe and with the American upper class in the antebellum South; a polite art form that is precise, naturalistic and strangely impersonal, even when depicting a specific person. In Walker’s hands, however, this staid and well-mannered technique becomes the medium for a psychosexually charged fantasia of race, history and power that is at once disturbing, funny, grotesque and viciously incisive.

Her setting is the old South, an “inner plantation” as she has described it, peopled with the stock characters and stereotypes of an antebellum harlequin romance, their reductive and caricatured nature reinforced by the absolute anonymity of the silhouette technique. The works thus take on an allegorical quality; they depict not so much people as prejudices and metaphors, the inhabitants of a collective American racial subconscious.

In Walker’s murals, these characters are dredged out of that subconscious into dream-like plantation scenes where they engage each other in acts of sex and death, courtship and violence, dancing and birth, consumption and excretion. At one level, these scenes do seem as unmanageable and chaotic as a dream: a Freudian explosion of psychological interpretations and symbolic associations. At the same time, the exquisite delicacy and austerity with which the murals are rendered seem to control and distance them, opening them up for analysis; they seem to be less expressions of the artist’s personal psyche than case studies of a larger social subconscious, one that has still not come to terms with its experiences of race, gender and history. However, the artistic control exhibited in the murals in no way diminishes their intensity, and the analytic distance remains tenuous, the viewer feeling constantly in danger of succumbing to these strange and disturbing fantasies.

In her talk, Walker discussed the origins and inspirations for her work, as well as this central tension between analytic artistic control and the psychological intensity of the scenes she depicts. Her father was a painter and so from a very young age she was interested in becoming an artist, but in her early work she assiduously avoided the controversial issues of race, gender and power that characterize her current projects. Walker said that her awareness and concern with those issues only began once her family moved to Atlanta from California and she came into contact with a society still very much affected by its racial history. And even then, it was not until she went to graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design and began exhibiting her work professionally that she began to deal with race in her work.

Walker recalled one early exhibition in particular that affected the direction of her work, a show in Atlanta titled “The Black Male: Image and Reality.” As one of two women invited to participate, Walker was disturbed by both the quality of work in the show and the reviews it received. Although well-intentioned, much of the artwork was not very good, being overly pedantic, preachy and sentimental; as Walker said, it was “swimming between bathos and podium-pounding.” Nonetheless, the local reviewers seemed to accept such standards, but only with the patronizing sense that one could not expect more from black artists talking about race.

Walker became interested in finding a way to effectively deal with issues like race and gender, power and history, which would have artistic and aesthetic integrity as well as an appreciation of the complexity and contradictions inherent in the subject.

Walker works in variety of media, especially drawing and watercolor, but the silhouettes emerged after a “cathartic” night when “making a hole in black space seemed the only way to express black woman-ness.” Meanwhile, the psychosexual complexity and violent intensity of her work is a reflection of both how she feels as a black woman and how the larger society perceives black women. This goes beyond mere power dynamics or simple prejudices, touching on a host of repressed fears and desires, issues of self-definition, individuation and assimilation. It is about “being in that state between wanting to kill something and bodily embody it.”

For Walker, who named both black feminist writers and cheap romance novels as two of her main sources of inspiration, the relationship between black women and the larger white male-dominated society becomes something like a dysfunctional, but still compelling (or at least inescapable), marriage: a combination of guilt and desire, anger and confusion, sublimated into a subconscious realm that is both frightening and enticing, grotesque and strangely beautiful. Her work both evokes this psychology and seeks to analyze it, to present it directly and unflinchingly in all its bizarre human glory, a kind of Freudian therapy for the social pathologies that still affect this country almost a century and a half after the end of slavery.