Kara Walker. Still from ‘Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale’, 2011, Video (colour, sound), 17 min. Courtesy the artist.
Kara Walker’s solo exhibition brings recent work to London: a video installation of the shadow play ‘Fall Frum Grace – Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale’; large scale graphite drawings including ‘Dust Jackets for the Niggerati’; and three monumental cut paper works made on-site. An essay by Hari Kunzru is published in the Camden Arts Centre File Note series. Kunzru brings his ironic literary style to the practice of art criticism, and its relationship to the writing of historical accounts. He draws Walker’s exploration of race, slavery and violence in America closer: ‘And now Kara Walker, an American Negress, comes to London with her pencils and paper and scissors and glue, stirring up trouble. Digging up things that ought to have been laid to rest, ugly things from the past’.
‘There is catastrophe and suffering in the human figures that emerge, or are lost in the lines that obscure where one begins and another ends’.
There is no respite from human cruelty and our own precarious relation to history; no matter what our subject position. We cannot view Walker’s cut paper works with a gaze that is too complacent, cordoned off from the conditions of their making. The possibility of what we might project onto them hovers, and we might find ourselves entangled: prejudice whether experienced or inflicted is insidious after all. The visual language of race is violent in its manufacturing of binaries, categories, personalities, types, and physiognomic caricatures. Race imagined via the conduits of blackness and whiteness: this is no benign colouring in. What is made visible is an optical field marked out by power; continuums of trauma, and its relentless repetitive return. Walker deploys the language of formal beauty, as she lays bare its relation to violence – the paper cut-outs are precisely executed formal objects, like exaggerated fairy-tale illustrations, exquisitely rendered but dangerous nonetheless.
Her graphite drawings embody her process: the ghostly imprints of hands as they move across paper; spaces that were drawn and then rubbed out; and inadvertent marks and scribbles. There are traces of graphite dust that cling to their surface; and layers thickened by repeated, obsessive colouring. There is catastrophe and suffering in the human figures that emerge, or are lost in the lines that obscure where one begins and another ends.
This ambiguity takes many forms in Walker’s work. In ‘Fall Frum Grace – Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale’ a black male body is tortured, hung from a tree and burned: the papery substance stands in for what we know takes place in the world. The meaning of this video oscillates between comprehension and opacity: the vagaries of desire and violence are cast in a triangle of one woman and two men. Walker obscures as she makes legible, and we see her presence, the back of her head, and her hands as they animate the figures at the centre of a human tragedy. The narrative she projects makes visible its construction, jump-cuts puncture any illusion of a seamless, coherent account and sound is rendered indistinct. Walker thwarts and repudiates the untroubled telling of a story and how she does so is important to what art can contribute to the critique of history.
Review originally published in ‘this is tomorrow’, 5 November 2013.