Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker

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One of the youngest recipients of a MacArthur “genius” grant, Kara Walker, an African American artist, is best known for her iconic, often life-size, black-and-white silhouetted figures, arranged in unsettling scenes on gallery walls. These visually arresting narratives draw viewers into a dialogue about the dynamics of race, sexuality, and violence in both the antebellum South and contemporary culture. Walker’s work has been featured in exhibits around the world and in American museums including the Museum of ...
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Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker

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One of the youngest recipients of a MacArthur “genius” grant, Kara Walker, an African American artist, is best known for her iconic, often life-size, black-and-white silhouetted figures, arranged in unsettling scenes on gallery walls. These visually arresting narratives draw viewers into a dialogue about the dynamics of race, sexuality, and violence in both the antebellum South and contemporary culture. Walker’s work has been featured in exhibits around the world and in American museums including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney. At the same time, her ideologically provocative images have drawn vociferous criticism from several senior African American artists, and a number of her pieces have been pulled from exhibits amid protests against their disturbing representations. Seeing the Unspeakable provides a sustained consideration of the controversial art of Kara Walker.

Examining Walker’s striking silhouettes, evocative gouache drawings, and dynamic prints, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw analyzes the inspiration for and reception of four of Walker’s pieces: The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, John Brown, A Means to an End, and Cut. She offers an overview of Walker’s life and career, and contextualizes her art within the history of African American visual culture and in relation to the work of contemporary artists including Faith Ringgold, Carrie Mae Weems, and Michael Ray Charles. Shaw describes how Walker deliberately challenges viewers’ sensibilities with radically de-sentimentalized images of slavery and racial stereotypes. This book reveals a powerful artist who is questioning, rather than accepting, the ideas and strategies of social responsibility that her parents’ generation fought to establish during the civil rights era. By exploiting the racist icons of the past, Walker forces viewers to see the unspeakable aspects of America’s racist past and conflicted present.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Shaw (history of art & architecture, Harvard Univ.) showcases the silhouetted works of one of the youngest recipients of a MacArthur "genius" grant, an artist who startles us with images of slavery and racial stereotypes. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

Seeing the Unspeakable is an extremely important work. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is the first writer to place this controversial young artist’s work firmly in an art historical perspective. She combines careful scrutiny of the art’s formal traits with wide-ranging iconographic analysis, canny theoretical interpretation, and a revelatory examination of the work’s critical reception. The result is an extraordinary piece of scholarship.”—Judith Wilson, University of California, Irvine

“It is not easy to write a scholarly work on a living artist whose talent for generating controversy at times obscures her formidable creative talent. However, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw has done it, with remarkable intelligence and style. She brilliantly contextualizes Kara Walker’s work in terms of art history and African American history in a book that will be of tremendous value to scholars across many disciplines.”—Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822333968
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 12/28/2004
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 798,788
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Her website provides more information about the author.

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Read an Excerpt

Seeing the Unspeakable



Copyright © 2004 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3396-8

Chapter One


The Negro is sort of a seventh son born with a veil, and gifted with a second sight in this American world-a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. -W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1904

Joy is unity. Laughter is the expression of a double or contradictory feeling, and it is for this reason that a convulsion occurs. From the artistic point of view: the comic is an imitation; the grotesque a creation. -Charles Baudelaire, "The Essence of Laughter, and generally of the Comic in the Plastic Arts," in Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Artists, 1972

Kara Walker's career as an internationally recognized artist has only just begun, but so far her life has been full of change and varied experiences. She was born in 1969 in Stockton, California, where her father, the artist Larry Walker, taught painting at the University of thePacific. When she was thirteen he moved the family to the small town of Stone Mountain, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, to take a position at Georgia State University. Stone Mountain is notable for being the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan in 1915 and the site of annual Klan rallies through the early 1980s. The transition was difficult for her and she rapidly became a loner. She believes that the other African American children in her new community ostracized her because her California accent was too "white." At the same time, she was deemed to be too dark-skinned to be friends with the European American children. In this strange and new world of the suburban Deep South there seemed to be no racially neutral ground on which she could stand, so she withdrew into the realm of observation.

Surrounded by the legacy of the Jim Crow laws and the Gone With the Wind mystique that Atlanta self-cultivates, the teenage Walker viewed her life as though it were being led in a minstrel show, one that she had accidentally fallen into. She began seeing her racial identity as something that was lived and performed on a daily basis in a sort of "pageant" in which she was an unwilling participant. Her experience of this pageant, which she has likened to a continual reenactment of the Civil War era in the present day, became a metaphor for her contact with the unknown. In reflection of these teenage experiences, much of her art has been a search to discover exactly what her role might be within this unbidden drama. "When I began graduate study at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] I was coming out of a period where I was experimenting socially and theoretically with the 'psychosexual Legacy' of southern racism [if you will] but this experimentation did not take on any clear visual form." Walker has explained, "I was thinking along the lines of some of Adrian Piper's early performances, where she invented an identity for herself and spoke through her 'Mythic Being' in public arenas.

These actions of mine were only missing the necessary elements of structure and documentation. So it was not until I escaped the South (where I still find it impossible to speak) that I began to seek out any references to Interracial Romance, American Chattel Slavery, Black Womanhood and the Fictions of the South." It was only after having effected this "escape" following graduation from Atlanta College of Art to the MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence that Walker was able freely to explore her own complex consciousness. She began this process by abandoning the abstract painting she had been doing in favor of pieces that combined text and image.

However, as a student in Atlanta in the late 1980s, Walker was initially resistant to exploring racism or history in her art. This reluctance stemmed from the simple reason that her instructors expected it of her, and she is not the type of woman that bows to the expectations of others. So it was not until she began graduate work at RISD that she decided to abandon her previous methods and begin to work with racial and sexual themes. At first, her work was varied in style and uneven in quality. "RISD presented me with an all too common problem," says the artist, "that of having to rely on myself to discover source material regarding Race and racism. So methodologically my research was and continues to be pretty chaotic. I was reading bell hooks, Michele Wallace, Pornographic novels, looking at reference books on early American painting and portraiture ... and twentieth century works by Black artists." By the mid-1990s she had found an exciting medium in the form of the silhouette. "In a way making Silhouettes kind of saved me. Simplified the frenzy I was working myself into. Created the outward appearance of calm." It was a medium that meshed with her concepts, and it offered a stylistic niche that would transform her artistic practice and rapidly bring her to the attention of the art world.

From this point forward, the works Walker created and exhibited often had the epic scale of history painting, the caustic bite of political satire, and the scopophilic draw of pornography. They displayed the influence of large swaths of "high" and "low" European art that Walker encountered in her art history classes, trips to the library, and her work in a used book store. It began to lean toward the grotesque, the carnivalesque, the transgressive, and the abject.

As Thomas Mann has noted, "The striking feature of modern art is that it has ceased to recognize the categories of the tragic and the comic. ... It sees life as tragi-comedy, with the result that the grotesque is the most genuine style." It is this very modern sort of tragicomic grotesquerie that we see in Walker's work. With their abnormal features, comical stereotypes, and bizarre interactions, the works recall the satirically moralizing work of William Hogarth and Francisco Goya, in particular, Hogarth's Marriage-a-la-mode, a lascivious representation of upper-class conjugal dissolution, and Goya's Los Caprichos, which examined the follies of Spanish court life through carnivalesque images. The carnivalesque link between Hogarth, Goya, and Walker can be seen in their mutual desire to overturn the ruling ideologies of propriety and authority. In their work, as in carnival, where men dress as women and walk on their hands, the world is turned upside down and the codes and modes of society are flouted.

The political drawings of the German dadaist George Grosz, which mock the pretensions and failures of the Weimar bourgeosie, also echo in the grotesque characterizations and political overtones of Walker's images. For the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, the carnivalesque is "that peculiar folk humour that has always existed and has never merged with the official culture or the ruling classes." In this sense, the carnivalesque attitude that we see in Walker's work, like that of Grosz, may be viewed as just that: an idea, a way of looking at the world that subverts the dominant oppressive vision into one that can be laughed at and ridiculed. These silhouette caricatures insert laughter where it is most forbidden, and therefore most meaningful.

Immediately after graduation from RISD, Walker participated in a number of group shows that introduced her work to the international art world. Her breakthrough came when she exhibited the ambitious, 50-foot-long silhouette wall installation Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart at the Drawing Center in New York City in "Selections 1994."

Following her success in the Drawing Center show, Walker quickly found gallery representation with Wooster Gardens, now Brent Sikkema Gallery, in New York City. She was given solo shows there in 1995, "The High Sweet Laughter of the Nigger Wenches at Night," in 1996, "From the Bowels to the Bosom," and in 1998, "Missus K. Walker returns her thanks to the Ladies and Gentlemen of New York for the great Encouragement she has received from them, in the profession in which she has practiced in New England," such wry titles recalling the frontispieces of antebellum books and broadsides.

In 1996 she exhibited a commissioned work in the show "La Belle et La Bete" at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in France. That same year she participated in "New Histories" at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; "Look Away! Look Away! Look Away!" at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in upstate New York; and in "Conceal/Reveal" at SITE Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In 1997 her work was featured in the high-profile Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. She also contributed work to a group show, "Real," at the Bass Museum, Miami, and created three solo exhibitions: "no place [like home]" at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, where she exhibited the large wall installation Slavery! Slavery!; "Upon My Many Masters-An Outline," at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and an exhibition at the Renaissance Society in Chicago that produced the self-titled catalogue "Kara Walker," which until 2002 remained the only major volume of her work and writing to have been published.

In 1997 Walker also designed a limited-edition pop-up book, Freedom: A Fable, for the collectors Peter and Eileen Norton and funded by the Norton Family Foundation. Printed in an edition of four thousand, the laser-cut book was presented as the couple's annual Christmas gift to their friends and associates. The work was subtitled A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times and featured the broken narrative of a young black woman who dreams of transcending race by immigrating to Liberia. The text was accompanied by nonliteral illustrations that included four pop-up silhouettes of a southern plantation, the Negress stranded on a desert island, piles of feces, and a birth scene. While the pop-ups were laser cut, each book was assembled by hand, giving the mechanically reproduced object an aura of originality and individuality.

These highly successful shows and commissions were followed by a joint exhibition with Arturo Herrera at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London and a piece in the "Strange Days" exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, in 1998. While most of the exhibitions that Walker participated in during this period featured large-scale silhouette wall installations by the artist, she continued to experiment with form and size issues, occasionally submitting smaller drawings or individual silhouettes rather than multifigure groupings. For example, Walker contributed two small works, Lil' White Drop (1995) and B'rer Fox (1995), to the group show "Pagan Stories: Situations of Narrative in Recent Art" at Apex Art C.P. in New York. These works recalled Victorian children's book illustrations in their scale and textual relationships, and they continued to assert the artist's interest in themes of mythology and history.

Walker's work was included in three other major group exhibitions during 1998: "Global Vision: New Art from the '90s" at the Deste Foundation, Athens, Greece; "Other Narratives" at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; and "Secret Victorians: Contemporary Artists and a Nineteenth-Century Vision," organized by the Hayward Gallery in London for the Arts Council of England. At the conclusion of its London run, "Secret Victorians," which featured a rather brief yet interesting catalogue, traveled to the Armand Hammer Museum of Art in Los Angeles.

That same year Walker was given several solo exhibitions: "Presenting Negro Scenes Drawn Upon My Passage Through the South and Reconfigured for the Benefit of Enlightened Audiences Wherever Such May be Found. By Myself, Missus K. E. B. Walker, Colored," at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University, which accompanied a conference on art and race that is discussed later in this study; "Kara Walker" at the Forum for Contemporary Art, St. Louis; and she produced the "Opera Safety Curtain for 1998-99 Season" at the Vienna State Opera House, Vienna, Austria.

For the winter and spring of 1999 Walker accepted an artist-in-residency position at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) in Oakland under the auspices of Lawrence Rinder, director of the College's Institute and the Capp Street Project. Out of this came the exhibition "No mere words can Adequately reflect the Remorse that this Negress feels at having been Cast into such a lowly state by the former Masters and so it is with Humble heart that she brings about their physical Ruin and Earthly demise." The works in this show, which traveled to the Armand Hammer Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, proved unique in their departure from the black-on-white silhouettes for which she had become so well-known. Here she introduced characters inspired by the myth of Leda and the Swan, executed in a scheme of black and white paper cutouts glued onto a curving gray wall.

In the autumn of 1999 Walker's work was featured in the Sixth International Istanbul Biennial alongside the work of the South African artist William Kentridge, an artist to whom, among others, she has been frequently compared for formal reasons. In Istanbul, Kentridge's 35-millimeter animated film Shadow Processions, a misty evocation of the pain of apartheid in South Africa, contrasted dramatically with Walker's hard-edged fantasy of the antebellum South. That same year she exhibited in a joint show with Glenn Ligon at Brent Sikkema, and was featured in the 1999/2000 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. Walker subsequently issued The Emancipation Approximation, which reproduced in boxed form her monumental, cycloramic wall piece of the same name that was shown at the Carnegie, as a portfolio of twenty-six screenprints, each measuring an impressive 34 x 44 inches. These works continued the black-and-white-on-gray palette of the CCAC show, but on a more monumental scale.

As the new millennium dawned, Walker's wall installations had begun to sell for well over six figures, the boxed set of screenprints for a price in the mid-five figures. She had made it to the A-list. This status was reinforced when she was chosen to represent the United States at the São Paulo Biennial in 2001. In spring 2002 an exhibition and catalogue, again titled "Kara Walker," was produced at the Kunstverein Hannover, in Germany, and the University of Michigan Art Museum presented "Kara Walker: An Abbreviated Emancipation (from The Emancipation Approximation)," with an accompanying best-selling catalogue, Kara Walker: Pictures from Another Time. Another, larger catalogue, Kara Walker: Narratives of a Negress, edited by Darby English, accompanied an important exhibition of her work in the spring of 2003 at the Tang Museum at Skidmore College before traveling to Williams College.


Excerpted from Seeing the Unspeakable by GWENDOLYN DUBOIS SHAW Copyright © 2004 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Tracing race and representation 11
Ch. 2 The "rememory" of slavery 37
Ch. 3 The lactation of John Brown 67
Ch. 4 Censorship and reception 103
Ch. 5 Final cut 125
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