Editor’s Note: This article mentions rape, sex, degradation of women, racism and slavery.
In this room, it is possible to differentiate between slaves and their masters by the size of their lips.
The silhouette of a mother stands over her children writhing on the ground, umbilical cords still attached.
A visitor wanting to leave unchanged should not enter this exhibit.
Kara Walker, the second youngest artist to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” fleshes out pervasive stereotypes to examine the antebellum South in a raw light. Her works are permanently located at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
The exhibit, Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power, is available Feb. 5 to May 29 at the David C. Driskell Center located in Cole Field House. It begins with a portrayal of the American Civil War, progressing from works titled Crest of Pine Mountain, Where General Polk Fell to the Summit of Maryland Heights. Deeper into the exhibit, the scenes of the Civil War transition into intimate silhouettes of rape, birth, oral sex and lynchings, mixed with a dark and hyperbolic humor.
Walker creates tableaux of black, cut-paper silhouettes to portray the racial power dynamics in America through the lenses of race, gender and sexuality.
“Most pieces have to do with exchanges of power – attempts to steal power away from others,” Walker said in a 2003 PBS interview.
The theme of power struggle is the most evident after walking through the exhibit to the back where a small television is mounted on the wall, unassuming. The TV summons onlookers with sounds of classical piano and occasional crickets. It seems pleasant enough. The characters on the screen are mere silhouettes, puppets directed by hands that flash occasionally in and out of view.
The piano plays lightly in the background as the marionette of a slave woman comes crawling clumsily through the trees. She is chased by a man with a gun, lips protruding from her face. She must be naked because she is thrust to the feet of a man who climbs on top of her and proceeds to violently violate her. This video, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: Six Miles From Springfield on the Franklin Road, portrays relationships between slave owners, farmers and slave families.
The depictions of slaves as animals are especially provocative.
Walker captures this with a portrayal similar to that of the Grimm brothers’ fairytales. Walker gives women tails and portrays geese with human heads.
“There are so many fallacies, so many myths about the absence of humanity in women, in blacks, that I don’t even think it’s abnormal that she has a tail,” she said in an interview with BOMB Magazine.
She takes stereotypes and portrays them honestly.
Her goal was to display the underbelly of society. Even with large claims, there is no self-important air about her work. The exhibit perfectly encapsulates the past, suggesting nothing of what came before or might be. There is nothing subtle or gentle about it.
It is horrifying but necessary.
With her art, Walker guts the past and presents the open innards of the horrors of the antebellum South. She questions contemporary American identity, how we see our history and ourselves.
Her work is shocking to anyone who has been coddled by history textbooks.
To call it brilliant would be an understatement.
Raye Weigel is a freshman English and community health double major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.