Unspeakable, beautiful work by Kara Walker at MAM
Kara Walker: Virginia’s Lynch Mob and Other Works
Sept. 15-Jan. 6, 2019
32nd annual Julia Norton Babson Memorial Lecture with Guest Curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shw and Rutgers University Associate Professor Brittney Cooper on the exhibition on Thursday. Oct. 18, 7 p.m.
Montclair Art Museum, 3 South Mountain Ave.
Concurrent with Constructing Identity in America (1766-2017), Sept. 15-Jan. 5, 2019
By GWEN OREL
Here’s something you don’t see every day: advisory warnings at an art museum.
It’s not because flashing lights could be detrimental to health.
It’s because of the art itself, though it does not show blood and guts, it does display horrific cruelty and violence.
“Kara Walker: Virginia’s Lynch Mob and Other Works,” currently on display at the Montclair Art Museum, is an exhibition centered on a 40-foot installation. The exhibit, hung on a curved wall built for Walker’s work, shows 23 paper cut-outs that appear to depict a lynching about to happen. There is a child shooting himself, a boy carrying a noose, an antebellum child with a Klan mask and a child flying. Is the flying girl Virginia? Or is it the title that refers to the state of Virginia?
Walker’s works on display range from 1997 through 2017. They explore race, gender, sexuality and violence.
The Walker exhibition runs concurrent with “Constructing Identity in America (1766-2017),” an exhibition drawing on 90 works mostly from MAM’s permanent collection.
________________________________________________________________________READ: MONTCLAIR ART MUSEUM LAUNCHES RETROSPECTIVE OF KAY WALKINGSTICK
Mam Director Lora Urbanelli said both exhibitions attempt to foster dialogue.To make sure dialogue happened, MAM reached out to the African American community in and around Montclair more than a year ago, she said.
MAM was aware that Walker, born in 1969, is controversial, despite having won the MacArthur “genius” grant in 1997, when she was still in her 20s.
“We know that there are people that find the work so difficult as to be offensive. She does use stereotypes to express herself. And there are members of the African-American community who find that rather difficult and want to leave those stereotypes aside. And here's this young artist throwing them in your face,” Urbanelli said.
Dialogue will at least let people know what MAM was trying to do, she continued. The museum has programmed different events to help foster that dialogue, and created a space for reflection, where people can write their own thoughts about the exhibition.
And the advisory notices will warn not just families away from images of rape and lynch, but also adults who could be upset. There is also an educational guide that will help parents talk about race, issue, gender, slavery and identity issues, as well as of the legacy of violence that Walker’s work depicts.
Even in Walker’s early work she explores stereotypes, said MAM Curator Gail Stavitsky, who assisted on the show with Guest Curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of American Art at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of “Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker.”
Stavitsky said that for Walker, silhouette is linked to a stereotype, because it reduces visual information. And silhouette itself is a historic form of art, a popular miniature portraiture in the 18th century. What Walker does with the format is to make it subversive.
A relatively early work, “Emancipation Approximation,” shows a black silhouette of a woman carrying a white silhouette on her head. The title “Emancipation Proclamation” is a deliberate play of words.
“Her titles have an old-fashioned, historical theme to them, that give you a guide to their meaning,” Stavitsky continued. “Emancipation Approximation” suggests that we have not yet arrived at total equality. The white cutout looks like a woman, and also like a boll of cotton.
But the work is meant to be open-ended, Stavitsky said, with viewers bringing their own experiences to the work. Walker has said she wanted a viewer that would giggle nervously, but be pulled in to something that can be disturbing, but also beautiful.
A monumental 2012 work titled “Sketch for an American Comic Opera with 20th century Race Riots,” which shows both a woman in an antebellum long dress and hoses turned on children, as they were in Alabama in the 1960s, is typical of what Walker is doing now, she said.
Several of the works show the fetishizing and exoticization of the black female body, Stavitsky said. “African/American,” a work from 1998, shows a woman that seems to be flying, and sets up a conversation with the central work, “Virginia’s Lynch Mob.”
And in that central work, there is mystery: has the lynching already happened, or is it about to occur? It’s open-ended.
FASCINATION WITH HISTORY
Walker’s fascination with history informs all of her work. Some of the work takes history on directly: a 2005 series titled “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated),” literally takes engravings from Harper’s magazines/books of the period, enlarges them, with Walker adding her own silhouettes to them. “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated),” also known as of “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion,” was a way that people got their news, Stavitsky said. After the war ended, there was a process of purging images of slaves from the volumes, to appease the Confederacy. History changed.
By putting her silhouettes into them, Walker restores the history.
So “Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats” now shows a woman fleeing, seeming to hover mid-air.
For Walker, the Harper’s images are landscapes at the back of her mind. She saw the Civil War as a personal, internal conflict, Stavitsky said. The artist annotates the work with her own notes.
Perhaps the most disturbing work, with its own advisory sign, is Walker’s 2005 silent, eight-minute film “Testimony.” It uses paper cutouts and marionettes, and shows Walker’s own hands manipulating them. It tells the story of slaves who are freed, who go on to torture and rape their former masters. It shows abusive power dynamics, and how slavery itself was degrading. Captions in the film say slaves were “only following orders.”
Turning things inside out, Walker shows that nobody wins in this system. It makes “something beautiful out of something very difficult.”