In American TV show Weeds, a preacher chastises his friend for using the word ‘ain’t’. ‘Don’t say that. “Ain’t” is a slave word,’ to which the woman dryly responds: ‘Well, I ain’ts no slave, so’s I can says what I wants.’ With similar wit, but undoubtedly more edge, American artist Kara Walker has cut through the history of slavery to produce an imaginative revisionism that refuses to shirk at bad language. Instead, she does unheard of things with both words and form, and this meticulously arranged guide to her apocalyptic world is full of such horrors. Her extensive series, ‘Negress Notes’, 1995, for instance, shows Alice in Wonderland figures play-lynching black maids; Massas raping pickanninies; Big Mammies trailing dead foetuses.
One might think that an artist famed for immersive black and white tableaux installations might fail to harness the same potency when pushed into a format ruled by the autonomy of the page-turner. Yet leafing through Walker’s sketches in ‘My Complement’ trigger a voyeurism quite apart from the complicity of her exhibitions. Here, text and image merge into a colonial children’s picture book. But this is also a peep show: a Southern grotesque gone deep into a menacing antebellum. Walker’s minimal gruesomeness is worthy of Aubrey Beardsley, but caricatured with the pustulent carnivalesque of Hieronymus Bosch. It seesaws dizzily between violence and virtue. Hasty watercolour and pencil seem to suit impromptu obsessions that provoke uneasy laughter: swift, confidant strokes show her consummate draughtsmanship and dynamism. Crisp photographic documentation of her installation works such as ‘Cut’, 1998, however, illustrate a more pensive wryness: one cut-out woman slits her wrists—the artwork enacts violence upon its own medium.
If anything could be faulted about this thoroughgoing survey, it’s the propensity to create the illusion of comprehensiveness. With illuminating essays by Thomas McEvilley and Robert Storr, the book is so well written it verges on becoming a totalising critique of her work, affording little imagination for anything other than what has already been said.
What it does confirm, however, is Walker’s ability to wreak havoc upon both liberal white and black sensibilities. African American artists Betye Saar and Howardena Pindell have accused Walker of propagating negative black stereotypes and indulging white racist fantasies. But they neglect to see that purely positive racial images aren’t necessarily a miracle cure against racism. When racism ceases to exist so will the relevance of Walker’s work. But until that time, these images serve to ridicule and articulate civilisation’s own obscenities. Certainly, readers should take no comfort from the fact that the work draws on a historical epoch of colonial brutality. If anything, Walker’s vivified figures symbolise an imaginative past spilled out to explain the shadows cast on our present.
Isla Leaver-Yap is a writer and critic