Tuesday, 4 December 2007



The current Whitney Museum survey of Kara Walker’s work signals a sustained accomplishment as well as surprising popularity for work that deals in provocative racial and sexual stereotypes. Walker’s work is also known for its concentration upon silhouettes; these, often black paper pasted or projected directly to the gallery wall, others mounted on canvas, largely for preservational reasons while others find easy service in various print forms.

The preference for silhouettes emerges for Walker in the mid 90s, while she researched slave stereotypes, related caricatures and folk imagery. The attraction is by no means automatic given these sources and some of the impetus is surely due to contemporary currents at that point, to the growing interest in caricature, for example (see also Posts 5 and 11) to other uses for profiles or silhouettes (see also Post 13). Where African American or black themes arise, precedents perhaps incline her work in other ways.

For example the work of Kerry James Marshall, from this time, tends to flatten modelling of figures to a compelling minimum, often leaving only eyes as much more than a silhouette. Often Marshall’s work is un-stretched, and together with heraldic captions, tends to allude to folk or protest banners, a resistance to conventional framing or situation, that gives this relaxation an unmistakeable agenda. The work also features casual over-painting and dribbles, emphasising re-workings, cancellations and adjustments. These effectively stand as metaphors for compromised and ravaged policies for improvement and integration, and again these qualities build a stylistic context within which to place Walker.

The work of Michael Ray Charles from this time also features vigorously distressed or aged surfaces, for imagery that is drawn from black stereotypes used in earlier advertising. Here emphasis upon surface gives the work the quality of a rescued relic, an aura of reverence or complacent chic for what is essentially a demeaning caricature in the service of minor commerce. The battered surface thus takes on a more loaded, ambiguous meaning in the context of a contemporary image of black Americans. It is retrieved, but not without some loss. Both examples thus stress the picture surface in dealing with black stereotypes, in Marshall’s case even while broaching the silhouette. Part of what is distinctive to Walker’s approach is the conspicuous absence of this engagement with surface, indeed with even a definite or lasting surface to the work at all. So the attraction is not just to silhouettes, but a cooler, literally more detached approach to picturing black Americans.

Much of the impact of the silhouettes comes from the incorporation of the standard white walls to an exhibition space, as obvious counterpoint to the black figures. And the figures are not just cast into shadow of course, or lurking ‘in the dark’, but are racially black, are a pun and upon a white world, with black humour as a market or magic in the blackout or blind spot to power, in passing, playful projection. The eloquence of black to silhouette in fact almost overpowers their historical status as genteel amusement or currency in cartoons and children’s illustration since. All become suffused with slave and racial stereotypes, not merely located in a distant ante bellum but the nursery and myths that stalk history.

So effectively does Walker match silhouette to an image of black Americans, that for many the work becomes narrowly doctrinaire, the agenda too didactic, and soon dismissed as monotonous. But this is to miss how much is concealed by her silhouettes. For Walker’s characters are rarely straightforward and their interactions or situations often introduce sexual or violent acts, not just between races, but men, women and children. There is often as much feminism as racism at stake; in other cases the ambiguities to silhouettes cloak deeper myths and metamorphosis.

The distinctive wall tableaux on closer inspection rarely dwell on the tasks of slavery, even at their most mythic, but more often turn to the obscurities or ambiguities afforded by silhouettes. In this sense Walker’s silhouettes transcend slave stereotypes and become less about the roots of black Americans than an arena in which to project profound fears about sexuality and identity, hostility and dependence, superstition and trust. The distance from history is more pointed in a series of prints that take civil war episodes literally as a background. It is not so much that a black presence is otherwise unavailable – and virtually inconceivable - to these scenes, but that Walker’s concerns are so much broader, more comic and mythic. Silhouettes have become the source of a much greater emancipation, black and American, only in outline.

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