Staff Perspectives: Terri Thornton on Kara Walker
Posted by Terri on August 7, 2008 - 9:35am
Categories: On the Walls

Placing Walker's early cut paper on canvas piece, You Do, 1993/1994, at the entry of Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love was a profound curatorial choice. Its conjoined figures read like a Rorschach test asking the viewer, "what do you see? what concerns you? what intrigues you? what does that say about you?" All of which is a great primer for an exhibition that doesn't give answers or even form questions but rather poses a state of affairs. The viewer is left to form her own questions and then work toward answers or more questions.

It is a very demanding exhibition. So much has been written and said about Walker's work that there is no chance for an original thought, a single idea that is going to clearly reveal the problem and certainly none that is going to fix it. This leaves the serious viewer with only self reflection. The content seems to be collective but in the end it is personal - "what do I see? what do I think? how do I feel about it?" And if ready, "what does that say about me?"

Personally, my emotions have moved from feeling quilt and shame as a white person who grew up in the south to feeling anger. I've gone from feeling responsible for the behaviors of people who came before me to knowing that I am also a victim of the crimes and ills of slavery. In this country we all are. My whiteness is defined/shaped by that institution as much as Walker's blackness is. This is evident in the very fact that there is "whiteness" and "blackness" instead of simply cultural variances.

An economy that motivated and then justified the use/abuse of people rather than an exchange of wages for labor is no excuse but quite possibly the root of the problem. Dominion over the option of free will and negotiation was more expedient and assured. To go from nothing to something, humanity was sacrificed by people who would have seen human sacrifice in other cultures as barbaric. It is amazing how the mind will contort to justify actions and attitudes that promote and feed its perceived needs and desires.

Lest I feel alone with my sorrow and anger in this exhibition, I watch the various films and see the artist's own soft image behind a scrim gently moving the figures through absurd, shocking, tender and horrific actions to tell hopeless stories. For example, in the most recent piece in the exhibition, the angry surface of some grey and threatening sea, a young slave boy showing affection for a woman who I presume to be his mother has his leg sawed off by a white man (master) for playing with the man's white daughter. This is the same man that the boy witnesses raping or making love to the slave woman who seems to be his mother. It is hard to distinguish between rape and consenting sex in some of Walker's images, which leads to the awareness that in the case of master and slave, violence wasn't necessarily a component of rape because the power structure was established and all parties knew the consequences of not complying (this being another realization/reminder that the exhibition affords its viewers).

While this is a simplified account of a very complicated film, Walker basically moves that boy (physically and conceptually) from love to anger, from dependence to independence which ultimately results in his death and that of his presumed mother. The grief is palatable in this piece, as in others, and Walker has to move through ever aspect of it. She creates it and in doing so, lives it. She can't walk out because it is too much or loose interest as a way to avoid becoming engrossed in the story and its implications. As the artist, Walker has to stick it out.

It's amazing to me that my heartrending, life-altering response to this exhibition is conjured by generalized paper cut-outs. I haven't actually witnessed the crimes of injustice represented here. It is easy to forget that no people or animals were hurt in the making of this art and that's good. It's good that no living beings were hurt for this exhibition and that that fact is easy to forget when swept up by the content and presentation of Walker's work. This exhibition has moved me through conflicts I've struggled with since I was old enough to understand the stain of slavery on this country's history and recognize the aftermath of its sins against humanity. It puts me on alert for the justifications of my own time and while there is much more to see and think about in this exhibition, this is where I am with it today.

Terri Thornton is our Curator of Education.