Near my parents’ house in western Georgia is a mountain made of stone. Aptly called Stone Mountain, this site features various hiking trails which the citizens of Atlanta use to escape the hustle-and-bustle of their city. At its peak, persistent climbers are rewarded with a view of untouched treetops stretching on as far as the eye can see. At its base, they can behold yet another sight—one that is just as breathtaking, but for very different reasons—namely, a 400 by 158 feet immortalization of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, whose likeness (fig. A) has been etched into the surface of the rock.
Born in a moderately affluent Californian suburb, Kara Walker initially felt uncomfortable incorporating race into her work because she feared doing so would be too “obvious.”[i] How and when she changed her mind, I do not know. However, moving to the peach state during her teens might have helped to do the trick; when you live in the shadow of the world’s largest Confederate monument and are constantly bullied by racist peers,[ii] political apathy must not only seem disagreeable, but inappropriate. Even so, Walker’s initial hesitations left their mark on her later work, which is more ambiguous—and therefore controversial—than that of many of her contemporaries.
Take, for instance, this watercolor drawing of Stone Mountain (fig. B). Produced for her Negress Notes exhibit in 2015, Walker evidently emulates the artistic style and skill of a child. In what kind of an environment that child must have been raised, though, remains up for debate. The simplistic yet forceful depiction of the Confederate flag around the bas-relief combined with the imposingly low angle of the composition suggests a proud, conservative young hand. However, the small size of the relief compared to the mountain as a whole—not to mention that mountain’s unnatural white color—casts a mood that is, of course, not condoning, but critical.
Such ambiguity can also be found in Walker’s more provocative and visceral work, like her massive mixed-media triptych, 40 Acres of Mules (fig. C). Its subjects are obvious: caricatures of Davis and some of his subordinates, a cavalry flag, and hordes of Klansmen; their arrangement in the picture, on the other hand, is not. While Lee is being mounted by a voluptuous black woman (and simultaneously mounting one himself), Davis gropes a bound, malnourished man. While the Confederate officers aren’t depicted at their handsomest, they are at the very least fully clothed. The blacks, by contrast, are shown as naked, thus revealing their swollen breasts and hardened penises—stereotypes normally seen in racist propaganda.[iii]
While, as a middle-class white man, it is not my place to interpret the racial argument that may or may not be embedded in this multifaceted image, I can say a few things about its place within the annals of art history. When I first saw 40 Acres at the MOMA a few years ago, I immediately thought of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (fig. D). Both are large in size, and deal with themes of war and sexuality. More importantly, however, each provides a powerful commentary on the historical paintings of the past. Once regarded as the master of all genres, its job was no less than to visualize civilization’s most important moments, and imbue them with unequivocal meaning through a consistent composition and biblical symbolism.
In doing away with these building blocks, Walker and Picasso not only implored viewers to look at mankind’s story from a vantage point other than that of the western hegemony, but also contested many of that hegemony’s most engrained beliefs, notably the idea that man was a noble creature, and his enterprises—particularly war—just. By shifting the unidirectional movement of Crossing of the Delaware River (fig. E) and upsetting the harmony of Liberty Leading the People (fig. F), contemporary art tends to depict conflict as chaotic, senseless and self-destructive, and reduce its arbiters from heroes to animals.
Walker’s meteoric rise caused quite a stir in the African- American art world, whose brightest stars did not take kindly to her arrival. Veteran Betye Saar labeled her depictions of black stereotypes “derogatory and racist”[iv] while the equally influential Howardena Pindell accused their peer of “catering to the bestial fantasies about black culture”[v] promulgated by white elite. Each has a point given how—to some extent—Walker’s approach may very well be regarded as perpendicular to the Black Is Beautiful movement: rather than exploring the magnificence of African culture that slavery suppressed, Walker prefers to focus on the ugliness which that same system substituted in its place.
But just because her images break the rules outlined by our traditional understanding of aesthetics, does not mean their message is a conservative one. Far from it: for every person that accuses Walker’s work of playing into the enemy, there are those who argue her methods combat the remnants of racism more efficiently and effectively than less confrontational artists ever could. To this end, Gwendolyn Shaw, in her book, Seeing the Unspeakable, has mentioned that Walker “calls forth the ghosts from our collective psyche.”[vi] In a similar vein, Robert Storr argues it exposes a “black hole at the core of western culture.”[vii]
But perhaps the critic David Wall put it most succinctly when he proposed the disturbing imagery, by forcing us to confront the “violence”[viii] implicit in the acts of looking and admiring, inspires a level of introspection that few conventional pictures could hope to match. I agree because, when I look at something like 40 Acres, I do not see a work of art—that is, a ‘sophisticated’ representation of ‘sophisticated’ ideas that was made to be displayed in the pristine halls of some prestigious museum. On the contrary, I see a clear, direct, unfiltered representation of pain and suffering that was inflicted not on imaginary images consisting of painted pigment, but actual, living, breathing people who are made of flesh and blood.
[i] Ellie Chaw. “Kara Walker: histories of art, race, and ‘feeling monstrous.'” PI Media, https://uclpimedia.com/online/kara-walker-histories-of-art-race-and-feeling-monstrous. Accessed on June 24, 2020.
[ii] “Kara Walker – Biography and Legacy.” The Art Story, https://www.theartstory.org/artist/walker-kara/life-and-legacy. Accessed on June 23, 2020.
[iii] Wesley Morris. “Last Taboo: Why Pop Culture Just Can’t Deal With Black Male Sexuality.” New York Times Magazine, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/10/30/magazine/black-male-sexuality-last-taboo.html. Accessed on June 24, 2020.
[iv] Quoted in Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (Duke University Press: Durham, NC, 2004), p. 15.
[v] Howardena Pindell, Diaspora /Realities/ Strategies (Midmarch Arts Press: New York, 2009), p. 61.
[vi] Shaw, Seeing the Unspeakable, p. 43.
[vii] Robert Storr, “Spooked,” in Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love (Walker Art Centre: Minneapolis, 2007), p. 65.
[viii] David Wall, “Transgression, Excess, and the Violence of Looking in the Art of Kara Walker,” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 30, no. 3 (2010), p. 280.