Kara Walker Turns Racist Symbols Into Haunting Art In New Show

by Holiday Black

Artist Kara Walker’s first show in London, Go To Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First, follows suit in the artist’s tradition of deconstructing the sexual and racial. Walker’s previous works include 2014 installation A Subtlety, a giant sugar sphinx in the industrial Brooklyn treasure, the Domino Sugar Factory. In 1994, Walker was awarded a MacArthur “genius,” grant for her gigantic mural, Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War As it Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. Her London exhibition, currently at the Victoria Miro Gallery, falls precisely in line with her commitment to dramatizing the historical roots of sexual and racial stereotypes in the United States.

Walker spent half her life in a Georgia school, where she grew up in literally in the shadow of white supremacist monument, Stone Mountain, a photograph of which is featured in the recent exhibition. Despite her personal roots and the region’s undeniable connection to the slave trade, the artist was unable to secure a showing in the American South, hence the exhibitions title, “To Hell or Atlanta.”

“I had a letter from a museum in Mississippi that was interested to show my work but, ‘not with the sex and violence,’” Walker told The Guardian. “I was like: I can’t censor it for you, it’s all in there.”

Like Walker’s previous artistic renderings of her experience as a black woman in contemporary America, this one is site-specific, squaring itself around the aforementioned wall-sized photograph the artist took of Stone Mountain. Much like the stony presidential faces adorning Mount Rushmore, Stone Mountain too is decorated with dated images of white American “heroism.” Carvings of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jefferson, former confederate generals, look outward from the mountain face. In 1915 Stone Mountain was declared the spiritual birthplace of the KKK. The mountain is a testament to the legacy of vicious and undeniable oppression of black folks dotting our history. If it’s any insight into our nation’s current status with race issues, the mountain has recently been turned into a theme park featuring popular laser shows.

Walker’s best known medium is the historically decorative paper-cut silhouette to create complex narratives and expound upon subtleties denied by mainstream re-tellings of systematic violence. Here, The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin spreads a wall of the upper gallery. Walker literally took a completely white wall and littered it with black images of sexual and racial violence, thus directly poking at a more rosy (read: white-washed) remembering of the Old South. The often epic proportions of her work to me gesture towards the omnipotent and unspoken nature of oppression.

The exhibition also features Four Idioms on Negro Art, in which she presents four different stereotypes of work done by black artists (primitivism, folk art, graffiti, and “high art,”). She includes approximately 30 small drawings/watercolor paintings. All in all, the entire thing spans two stories and sounds totally like mind candy.

I am constantly in awe of Walker’s ability to take a whole new way of exploding my consciousness of the pure theatre of American history. In my own encounter with her work (full disclosure: I say this as a white person), I’ve been touched, provoked, and pushed by Walker’s ability to expound upon the racialized scripts, which permeate our daily lives. If you are in London and able to go see this exhibition before it closes Nov. 7, please please please do so on my behalf or you might make me cry. No pressure or anything.

Photos courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery. 

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