Kara Walker “The Transgression of Shame”

Posted on November 1, 2008


The Emancipation Approximation 2000 Kara Walker

The Emancipation Approximation 2000 Kara Walker

Kara Walker is a contemporary African American Artist

Born November 26, 1969. As an Artist she explores race, sexuality, gender, identity and violence in her work. She has become perhaps best known for her room sized black paper cut silhouette installations.

She is in my opinion one of the most interesting artists of our time.

She is an Artist that has abandoned the fear of experimentation and expectation to overcome the shame of working outside the traditional modern established boundaries of what; is contemporary art and allowed her images to live in spite of their defiance to the safety of her deepest, most personal fears. Fears that we as viewers have difficulty in seeing and excepting.

Images that evoke shame in our selves, shame in our thoughts our actions our expectations.

Kara Walker is no easy Artist to understand, she hits you right between the eyes with subject matter that even her most enlightened peers have difficulty dealing with.

In an interview in BOMB Magazine by Matthea Harvey, Walker reveals some of her most personal thoughts about her work.

Shame she says is the most transgressive the most pervasive of personal emotions. Shame can overcome all other states of emotion, anger, rage, fear, happiness and all others. Walker says it is interesting to put that on the table, to elicit a feeling of shame from others and that is what Walkers work does. Her images reach into ourselves and stir up all of these emotions as she playfully uses sexuality, violence, race, gender and our own American history to stimulate those emotions.

I first remember seeing her work in Detroit.

I was visiting my daughter, I thought I had seen a print at the DIA. They have a promising African American collection. After searching their collection for a Kara Walker, she is surprisingly not there in the DIA collection.

Now I don’t really remember where I first encountered Walkers work?

But somehow that segregation, that African American collection category bothers me as much as the idea that Walker would be in a Detroit collection, although she should be.

That segregation of categories is us as Americans.

The category of which you belong is part of you and your identity. Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, African, Native and all Others. Americans are further categorized by ethnicity and religious belief. Categories are uniquely American identity’s. These categories exist on most job applications at any government employer as well as on most any form that seeks to gather information about you. Within these categories exist a lot of Shame, depending on your personal experience the shame is relative to you.

Kara Walker takes one step further and she opens up the dialog of gender, the final two categories male and female, the biological segregation of our species.

I questioned myself, who I am I to write about this artist. I am a white male of southern decent raised in a family punctuated with racism. That racism, that fear of race and gender is still an attribute enjoyed by my extended family. An attribute that I have struggled to remove myself from for most of my life.

It is an attribute of shame that tarnishes my deepest emotions and coexists with my own sense of self and is undeniably part of me.

It is a place I have ascended from, but will remain in me in spite of my efforts. It is this; that very point that Kara Walkers work speaks to me. In her interview with Matthea Harvey in BOMB Walker says

“Come and join me in my shame!”

which she says is a little peculiar. That statement no matter how peculiar it may seem, clarified repressed feelings for me, that I have struggled with all of my life to be quite honest. Feelings of going against ones own family belief system while trying to coexist in a world of differences of different histories and experiences. I have come to realize that this is the American Experience this is the American Experiment and Kara Walker sneaks up on you with her inviting and often humorous silhouettes that stand somewhere between art and American history, that she uses to create a truly American narrative. A narrative that almost requires you to be an American, to have lived the American experience, to truly and deeply appreciate the narrative of Walkers work. We as American’s share in these experiences at our own very personal levels and often very private histories.

So by now you may be wondering why I have entered into this abyss of complexity and emotionally charged subject matter.

On September 22, 2008 I picked up a feed on my news browser from the Dallas News. PBS art documentary raises eyebrows, concerns in DISD, {Dallas Independent School District}.

The school district purchased the PBS art:21-Art of the Twenty First Century,

documentary that features the short biographies of more than forty artists and describes their techniques to supplement new lessons for middle school aged and up students. Teachers were advised to use their own desecration in using the material and instructed to preview the material before use. Teachers were also told it is their choice as to whether they want to use the documentary or not, it is their choice. Some teachers who found the work of some artists too difficult to use have raised the question of the appropriateness of the material for middle school students. Those teachers and some parents consider the work of two artists in the series too disturbing and sexual in nature to allow students to see the documentary.

Sally Mann and Kara Walker

are the artists. The article reports that Kara Walkers work depicting scenes of slavery is too difficult for middle school students to understand. Mann’s work is said to be, too sexual in nature, she photographs children it is claimed in a sexual nature. Some of Walkers images also have scenes of a sexual nature.

The fear it seems is that the students might want to know more about these artists and look them up on the Internet and get an eyeful.

So I went onto the Internet and I did get an eyeful, to my delight, but then again I am an adult, most of the time. As an adult I have also supervised an Arts Education Program, as a Museum Director and I have dealt with the issue of controversial artwork in that setting. I am going to disappoint some of you because I am not going to second guess those teachers or parents.

The idea of “Age Appropriate Artwork” is as complex

as any discussed here and should be left to the individuals involved. As a Curator, Director I gave the same advice to Parents and Teachers alike. Review the work and use your own judgment. That is a pretty safe place to go when the work is as complex as Kara Walkers.

One work sited in the article was that of a slave child carrying the limb of a man in one hand and a blade in the other. Strong imagery for sure.

Kara Walker mixes up her images with horrifying details and humor. Like the girl with the alligator tail. Hybrids by their very nature.

Walker has described her work as “Fantasy Clothed in History.” She questions, whether or not there is such a thing as a past and a present, or if the past is just the present with new cloths on. Hidden in this metaphor is the truth of our shame our memory.

We dress up our deepest feelings and we cover them up with words and opinions especially when the subject gets difficult. We as parents and teachers project our discomfort with challenging subject matter, as age appropriate. We decide for the child what can be learned or experienced or not. We tend to try and shape the world, change history to protect the child or perhaps we attempt avoid our own confrontation with shame and those issues that reach deep into our personal feeling. Kara Walker’s work has this effect by design on the viewer and that makes her a Genius Artist in my book.

Perhaps the difficulty with Kara Walkers work is more basic, biological, women vs men and the sexual complexity gender itself.

Women always wind up being women” she wrote. “Silences: Rape, child death, illegitimate childbirth. Even today these the threads that seem to continually bind women together: some determined by the culture, some determined by biology. That’s where women always end up being women: you can do x,y and z to become a human being, but you’re suddenly confronted with being a woman again in a very limited sense: being a sexual object, and a sexual object who might also become a mother, willing or unwilling.” Kara Walker.

That statement is so very profound in itself that it crystallizes the shame and fear we are all so emotionally tied, both female and male we chose to silence our own personal histories.

This is perhaps what we seek to protect our children from learning. But the world is cruel and our children will soon learn these lessons and learn these lessons without our guidance if we hide in the shadows of shame of fear.

By the time a child is finished with middle school,

I have four who have, three girls and a boy, most children have encountered or have been witness to every issue and more written in this post. They have experienced in some fashion every violent act known, experienced in some way every personal shame imaginable and they have had little guidance from teachers and parents alike on how to cope in this insane society.

We seek to protect them, we seek to shelter and shape their image of the world and along comes a Kara Walker that says, yup here’s the truth, here’s a real story and we are frightened.

In fact most children have experienced more types of violent and racial behavior today sitting in front of mainstream TV than my generation even knew existed.

We find entertainment in murder, rape, autopsy’s of murder rape victims and on and on it goes.

Even in this atmosphere Walker’s work is a threat to many.

Same history new clothes? Who is doing what to who? Down to gender.

So I ask shouldn’t we be teaching our children about these subjects in a positive atmosphere. I learned somewhere along the way but not at the family dinner table on Thanksgiving. Perhaps it is our our suffering that finally teaches us. Perhaps it is a wise and gifted mentor who understands the ways of the world and they guide us in a positive safe way to ease our shame, our pain.

In Kara Walkers silkscreen print, The Emancipation Approximation, 2000.

A silhouette of a women leans over a tree stump with a ax standing beside it, scattered about the foreground are nine heads. The figure seems to be thinking with her chin resting on her hand, much like Rodin’s thinker. I have to wonder what she is thinking about. Is this a depiction of a real event.

Then just a few days ago two men were arrested for plotting to kill 88 Negro’s and presidential candidate Barrack Obama.

They planned to behead their victims. The two skin heads as they are said to be are merely children themselves, I believe eighteen and nineteen respectively. How could these two young men learn so much hatred in so little time, in America. It is in the shame of our history, it is the transgression of our shame.

Perhaps we should take another bit of advice from Kara Walker the mother.

When asked by Matthea Harvey about the attempts to mediate peoples reactions to her work by galleries, parents and so forth.

Walker responded “I don’t know. Children are drawn to the overall clarity of the black figures on white. Then things get pretty murky, because parents come in and explain things and it becomes too much. Too much for the parent, like where do you begin, or do you just let things flow? That’s what I chose to do with my daughter. I had all kinds of anxieties. What negative impact will this have? I just thought I can’t predict anything, so she will just have to guide me through my work.” Kara Walker.


BOMB Magazine interview





PBS Art 21




Dallas News article