Reframing a Black Experience

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The slim, soft-spoken woman stylishly turned out in a long, gray knit skirt and orange zip-front sweater certainly doesn’t come across as this season’s firebrand. Yet 29-year-old Kara Walker, who is black, is the surprised and hurt target of attacks from the African American community for her work, which is primarily wall installations using cutout black-paper silhouettes of racial stereotypes, such as mammies and minstrels. Her current installation at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, commissioned by Capp Street Project in Oakland, where it was seen last spring, is again raising heat in the community.

While she has been much lauded by the art establishment, which is largely white, the strong criticism of Walker first came about after the 1997 announcement that she had won a MacArthur Foundation grant. Many in the black community spoke out, saying that they have been offended by the artist’s stereotypical depictions of blacks in servitude, especially young black women, shown as sexually voracious or abusive.

Walker contends that she is showing such images to explore what the world is like for blacks living in America today. It represents, she says, “my experience of the world being post-integration. Part of what distinguishes [my] generation of very young people is that we had to invent another sort of black experience. We were given black pride, Black History Month, multicultural studies in school. I felt that a lot of what I was told to feel about being an African American woman was coming through civil rights documentaries or melodramas like ‘Roots.’ Yet, not too long ago, black people were being lynched. There is something very palpable about this.”

The exploration of these images, Walker says, is a personal one: “I started to deal with the cyclical nature of things. I think it’s always more difficult to go to the deep, dark heart of yourself and find horrible things there. I was completely shocked by the kind of work that came out of me, and I think that’s good. Then I shared it with the art world and found myself on this tidal wave.”

Among the most outspoken critics was L.A. artist Betye Saar, who is well-known for her breakthrough use of images of Aunt Jemima in her 1970s assemblage art. Saar was so offended by Walker’s work that she sent 200 letters of protest to prominent African Americans.

“The people who support her never thought it was racist, because she’s black,” Saar said in a recent interview. “It’s offensive and painful to other blacks.”

Saar makes the distinction that her own work represents a comic stereotype in the role of caregiver or warrior, while Walker’s images of blacks are portrayed in a derogatory manner. Yet rather than blame the artist, Saar points to white-controlled museums and collectors for their eager embrace of what she feels are reactionary representations.

“I have nothing against Kara except that I think she is young and foolish,” Saar told a reporter from the International Review of African Art. “Here we are at the end of the millennium seeing work that is very sexist and derogatory . . . Most raves come from white writers, although some black writers also affirm her.”

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Although the sexual provocation in the installation at the Hammer seems relatively ambiguous, at the entrance Walker has created a silhouette of two African American women, one old and one young, struggling to kill each other. “They represent two sides of a battle about the right sort of blackness,” Walker explains. “It’s certainly not a winning battle. Both die.”

Walker is the daughter of painter Larry Walker, who moved his family from Stockton, Calif., where they were the only black family on the block, to Atlanta, in 1983, when he became head of the art department at Georgia State. Walker’s mother is an administrative assistant, and both parents were supportive of Walker’s decision to attend the Atlanta College of Art, from which she graduated in 1991. She went to graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, where she continues to live, having finished her MFA in 1994.

“I moved to the South at a point in my life when I was distanced from the culture and the way race relations is so embedded in Southern life,” she says. She was fascinated by the city’s cyclorama “The Battle of Atlanta.” 'It’s so not art, it’s spectacle. I love the attempt to keep it contained as history painting, though it is so over the top.”

Her outsider’s view of the history of the South led her to depict racial stereotypes in silhouette, a blowup of a style familiar from the small black-paper cutout folk art form prevalent in the 19th century. After three years of exhibiting the work, Walker received the phone call from the MacArthur Foundation, awarding her $190,000 to be paid over five years. Shortly thereafter, she married jeweler Klaus Burgel, who is white, and had her first child, Octavia, now 2. During that time, her works were censored and removed from various exhibitions, and the protests over her imagery snowballed, becoming the subject of numerous heated articles and university symposiums.

“For me, the argument of who is looking at the work and what are they seeing gets muddled with all sorts of other issues, and this is something I recognize from black folks, this rolling in of the personal and political,” says Walker. “The interracial marriage, the youth, folly and brilliance are all seen as part of the work.”

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Walker’s presence at the Hammer was at the invitation of the museum’s new director, Ann Philbin, who was the first to exhibit Walker’s work in a major venue, in 1994 at the Drawing Center in New York. The artist’s installation here reaches back to Southern gothic romance novels of the 19th century for its fictional title, “No Mere Words can adequately reflect the remorse This Negress Feels At having been cast into such a lowly state By her Former masters and so it is with a Humble Heart that she brings about their Physical Ruin and Earthly Demise.” “I created this piece as a response to the controversy that has been raging about my work and about my role as poster child for work that uses racial stereotypes,” Walker says.

On a dark, gray wall, the black silhouettes of African American men and women are engaged in a vaudevillian battle over the fate of four white swans that have been decapitated, their long necks bearing the heads of the stereotypical mammy, pickaninny and buck.

“There isn’t a clear end to this war,” Walker says of the piece. “The two sides are claiming victory. For me, this is about righteousness. Somehow, they’ve taken these symbols of beauty and mangled and destroyed them for their own ends, as though wielding one’s faith as a weapon!”

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“KARA WALKER,” UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, 10899 Wilshire Blvd. Dates: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Ends Jan. 2. Prices: Museum admission $4; $3, students and seniors; free, children 17 and younger. Phone: (310) 443-7000.