WCMA exhibit uses black, white to color history

Kara Walker’s painting is “an intervention into certain ways of seeing,” according to critic Mark Reinhardt, professor of political science. Walker works mostly in black and white, but her colors – or rather, their absence – are in no way dull and monochromatic. Her black is not gloomy and dolorous; it is the stark black of a witness, the solemn black of judgment. Nor is her white one of background indifference; it is the pure white of responsibility to memory. Walker’s paintings are like silhouettes, etched from long-lost memory. Though they may educe pain and indignation, perhaps even anger, above all, they are a graceful reminder of our duty to the past and our lingering awareness of history’s legacy.

Walker’s figures, cut out of black paper, have no distinct features. They are not idealized types, but nor are they specific individuals. If she had cut them from white paper, they would have been mere ghosts of the past. But in black, they take on weight and permanence, stone-carved monuments of something that should never have been.

To reflect on the past and its relationship to the present, Walker composed a short series of words to accompany her newly-opened exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), “Narratives of a Negress.” Each word begins with the same prefix: “African, African’t, Africouldn’t, Afrishouldn’t, Africould’ve, Africould.” Other examples of the artist’s writing are also featured on index cards in a book about the exhibit, available at the museum.

Like her words, Walker’s paintings challenge present realities. The silhouettes are divided between disturbing power relationships and examples of visual and psychological stereotypes, which lend themselves to metaphorical representations of abuse and cruelty. In “Hunting Scene,” heads of black women hang from tree branches.

The size of the paintings, most of which are tall enough to take up an entire wall, reinforces the idea of an almost monumental presence despite the thin elegance of the silhouette lines. Sharply outlined and uniform in proportion and color, they appear inseparable from the wall. On the other hand, the viewer remains aware that the figures were pasted in deliberate, sometimes even unnatural, compositions. Devoid of any freedom, the figures are confined to predetermined roles. Looking at Walker’s works, it’s evident how easily we manipulate one another for our own purposes. The figures take up shapes that are not theirs and exist in places where they do not belong.

Although some of the works suggest a sense of motion, most of the figures are quietly frozen in a specific posture: a captured moment or a motionless eternity? Or are the figures caricatures, depicted at precisely the moment when their actions reveal a trait that attracts the arrows of satire? “Brown follies,” a series of smaller, more intimate watercolor paintings, reveal images of African-American culture, satirizing enduring perceptions. “You can’t really survive without satire, can you?” Walker said. In the face of past atrocities, satire becomes more than a means of artistic expression; it grows into a psychological mechanism, a survival technique. Yet Walker does not fall back on satire as a survival technique; she is equally, if not more, critical of those who have chosen another survival technique: forgetfulness. Among the watercolors is a white sign on black paper that reads “African Anonymous,” a written testimony of repression. Walker is “dead set on remembering so as to show the outrages of the past,” the exhibition’s catalog reiterates.

But Walker’s paintings are not just urges to remember and judge the past through thought-provoking caricatures. Viewed as a whole, the exhibition seems to be enveloped in a subtle sense of fear: fear of mental slavery. As Billy Holiday said, “You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation.” And mental slavery does not distinguish between colors.

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