Kara Walker’s lesson for Milwaukee: Don’t expect art to solve racial problems
The legendary African-American female artist recently released a politically powerful message about art and racism, and her statements offer a unique perspective of the social narrative in Milwaukee to use artwork as a means of cultural healing.
New York-based artist Kara Walker is best known for her candid exploration of race, gender, sexuality, and violence through cut-paper silhouetted figures that have appeared in numerous exhibitions worldwide. She has long been regarded as one of the most talented black female artists in the country.
Throughout her career, Walker has combined elegant technique with a sharp social commentary. Her large-scale print collection “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)” is considered to be her quintessential work. In it she juxtaposes Harper’s version of the Civil War with images of her own, questioning the notion that slavery ended with the war.
For Milwaukee, which continues to use art projects to heal racial pain for people of color, there have been many scientific studies done that document the healing power of art on individuals and communities. Walker’s statement, like the provocative work she creates, expressed the realities that have been overlooked by the public, and serves as lesson for efforts in Milwaukee to knock down the barriers of segregation.
In a statement released in the aftermath of Charlottesville this week, Walker bluntly shared her view of and frustration about the expectation of art to solve racial problems. Her words were intended to promote an upcoming September 7 gallery showing at Sikkema Jenkins and Co. in New York.
The first part of the release was written in the style of a vintage advertisement for a carnival sideshow attraction. It critiques the blockbuster status of Walker’s previous exhibitions, and subtly references the racism of President Trump. It reads:
“Collectors of Fine Art will Flock to see the latest Kara Walker offerings, and what is she offering but the Finest Selection of artworks by an African-American Living Woman Artist this side of the Mississippi. Modest collectors will find her prices reasonable, those of a heartier disposition will recognize Bargains! Scholars will study and debate the Historical Value and Intellectual Merits of Miss Walker’s Diversionary Tactics. Art Historians will wonder whether the work represents a Departure or a Continuum. Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media. Parents will cover the eyes of innocent children. School Teachers will reexamine their art history curricula. Prestigious Academic Societies will withdraw their support, former husbands and former lovers will recoil in abject terror. Critics will shake their heads in bemused silence. Gallery Directors will wring their hands at the sight of throngs of the gallery-curious flooding the pavement outside. The Final President of the United States will visibly wince. Empires will fall, although which ones, only time will tell.“
Kara Walker’s personal statement as the artist followed:
“I don’t really feel the need to write a statement about a painting show. I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point. But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of “having a voice” or worse “being a role model.” Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche.
It’s too much, and I write this knowing full well that my right, my capacity to live in this Godforsaken country as a (proudly) raced and (urgently) gendered person is under threat by random groups of white (male) supremacist goons who flaunt a kind of patched together notion of race purity with flags and torches and impressive displays of perpetrator-as-victim sociopathy.
I roll my eyes, fold my arms and wait. How many ways can a person say racism is the real bread and butter of our American mythology, and in how many ways will the racists among our countrymen act out their Turner Diaries race war fantasy combination Nazi Germany and Antebellum South – states which, incidentally, lost the wars they started, and always will, precisely because there is no way those white racisms can survive the earth without the rest of us types upholding humanity’s best, keeping the motor running on civilization, being good, and preserving nature and all the stuff worth working and living for?
Anyway, this is a show of works on paper and on linen, drawn and collaged using ink, blade, glue and oil stick. These works were created over the course of the Summer of 2017 (not including the title, which was crafted in May). It’s not exhaustive, activist or comprehensive in any way.”
Walker was raised in Atlanta, Georgia from the age of 13. She is the recipient of many awards, notably the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Achievement Award. Her work can be found in museums and public collections throughout the United States and Europe.