In preparation for the upcoming exhibition of Kara Walker’s work which will be seen at the Walker Art Center on February 18, 2007, I have been spending more time than usual, not in the library, but in her room-installation that is part of the Quartet exhibition in the Friedman Gallery. After several visits and careful looking, her images still continue to surprise me as they invite me to look at the beautiful and the grotesque simultaneously. The experience that unfolds is filled with diverse emotions and questions about race, prejudices, sexual power or the lack thereof. Walker’s images challenge bourgeois codes of conduct and puritanical views of sexuality. Furthermore, they oppose conventional dialectics of power (i.e. master/slave, villain/victim) in order to create a new type of images, as she has admitted, “ that undermines all our fine-tuned, well-adjusted cultural beliefs.”
Currently on display is a recent piece entitled Testimony (2004). This film animation signals a departure in Walker’s creative process as she brings movement to her still images and takes on the role of puppeteer. Reminiscent of Lotte Reiniger’s pioneering silhouette animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), Walker created small-scale puppets made of black paper of her most infamous silhouette characters–the mammy, the young negress, the master, and the overseer. But unlike traditional shadow-puppet plays where the puppeteer is invisible to the viewers, the artist’s hands and face are revealed to us as she animates the figures and tell a story of oppression, rebellion, and murder.
Like few other artists of her generation, Walker is determined to investigate the interrelatedness of race, sex, and satire, and bringing them into the history of art in the tradition of Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, and Adrian Piper. Walker’s observations of the past award us the opportunity to confront the roots of racism, the shameful legacy of slavery and as we were reminded recently after Katrina struck New Orleans, the deep-seated racial and economic inequities that define contemporary American life. Her latest project is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was recently reviewed by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith. I invite visitors to stop by the Quartet exhibition and contemplate the frankness and courageousness with which Walker has explored these troublesome questions.
Quartet: Barney, Gober, Levine, Walker closes on November 5, 2006.