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Reframing a Black Experience

Kara Walker's images stir debate in the African American community on whether they enlighten or degrade.

October 31, 1999|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The slim, soft-spoken woman stylishly turned out in a long, gray knit skirt and orange zip-front sweater certainly doesn't come across as this season's firebrand. Yet 29-year-old Kara Walker, who is black, is the surprised and hurt target of attacks from the African American community for her work, which is primarily wall installations using cutout black-paper silhouettes of racial stereotypes, such as mammies and minstrels. Her current installation at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, commissioned by Capp Street Project in Oakland, where it was seen last spring, is again raising heat in the community.

While she has been much lauded by the art establishment, which is largely white, the strong criticism of Walker first came about after the 1997 announcement that she had won a MacArthur Foundation grant. Many in the black community spoke out, saying that they have been offended by the artist's stereotypical depictions of blacks in servitude, especially young black women, shown as sexually voracious or abusive.

Walker contends that she is showing such images to explore what the world is like for blacks living in America today. It represents, she says, "my experience of the world being post-integration. Part of what distinguishes [my] generation of very young people is that we had to invent another sort of black experience. We were given black pride, Black History Month, multicultural studies in school. I felt that a lot of what I was told to feel about being an African American woman was coming through civil rights documentaries or melodramas like 'Roots.' Yet, not too long ago, black people were being lynched. There is something very palpable about this."

The exploration of these images, Walker says, is a personal one: "I started to deal with the cyclical nature of things. I think it's always more difficult to go to the deep, dark heart of yourself and find horrible things there. I was completely shocked by the kind of work that came out of me, and I think that's good. Then I shared it with the art world and found myself on this tidal wave."

Among the most outspoken critics was L.A. artist Betye Saar, who is well-known for her breakthrough use of images of Aunt Jemima in her 1970s assemblage art. Saar was so offended by Walker's work that she sent 200 letters of protest to prominent African Americans.

"The people who support her never thought it was racist, because she's black," Saar said in a recent interview. "It's offensive and painful to other blacks."

Saar makes the distinction that her own work represents a comic stereotype in the role of caregiver or warrior, while Walker's images of blacks are portrayed in a derogatory manner. Yet rather than blame the artist, Saar points to white-controlled museums and collectors for their eager embrace of what she feels are reactionary representations.

"I have nothing against Kara except that I think she is young and foolish," Saar told a reporter from the International Review of African Art. "Here we are at the end of the millennium seeing work that is very sexist and derogatory . . . Most raves come from white writers, although some black writers also affirm her."


Although the sexual provocation in the installation at the Hammer seems relatively ambiguous, at the entrance Walker has created a silhouette of two African American women, one old and one young, struggling to kill each other. "They represent two sides of a battle about the right sort of blackness," Walker explains. "It's certainly not a winning battle. Both die."

Walker is the daughter of painter Larry Walker, who moved his family from Stockton, Calif., where they were the only black family on the block, to Atlanta, in 1983, when he became head of the art department at Georgia State. Walker's mother is an administrative assistant, and both parents were supportive of Walker's decision to attend the Atlanta College of Art, from which she graduated in 1991. She went to graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, where she continues to live, having finished her MFA in 1994.

"I moved to the South at a point in my life when I was distanced from the culture and the way race relations is so embedded in Southern life," she says. She was fascinated by the city's cyclorama "The Battle of Atlanta." 'It's so not art, it's spectacle. I love the attempt to keep it contained as history painting, though it is so over the top."

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