Controversial, thought-provoking and alluring are just a few of the words that come to mind when describing the art exhibition “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power.” The exhibition encompasses three narrative portfolio series of sillhouettes that each tell a story, laser-cut steel sculptures, a film and stand-alone works. The show is on tour with the Bellevue Arts Museum serving as one of eight locations showcasing her work.
“Challenging, impactful, and often difficult, but important and relevant,” is how BAM Curator of Craft Jennifer-Navva Milliken described the exhibition. “It’s gone to a lot of venues where the audiences are not necessarily African-American. There’s really a White community in which this exhibition has been inserted. It’s been a very powerful tool for education, conversation, challenging dialogues and increased awareness through art.”
Milliken went on to say BAM has received positive feedback about the exhibit. Given the state of race relations in America — the frequent shootings of unarmed Black men by law enforcement, the vitriol of the U.S. presidential campaign — Walker’s exhibit is also timely.
Walker’s artwork focuses on a dark time in American history — slavery, the Civil War and reconstruction. She doesn’t gloss over the subject; rather, she confronts it head-on in a way that could leave people uncomfortable but unable to look away. People may want to avoid the pieces, but there’s also a need to understand the images she’s presenting. She uses stereotypical characters such as the pickaninny, mammy, southern belle and Uncle Tom.
“The thing about Kara Walker is that she doesn’t let anyone get away with anything in her show. Everybody is accountable. She doesn’t hold back for some people and deliver for others. Everybody is confronted here,” Milliken said.
Milliken has followed Walker’s career from the beginning in the 1990s and is thrilled to have her work on display.
Walker uses black silhouettes from cut paper throughout her work to represent everyone.
Doing so challenges the audience about their own bias.
“Our instability (or desire) to determine whether Walker’s characters are White or Black based on factors other than their skin color draws attention to the enduring presence of racial stereotypes, and implicates our complicity within this visual system. By using black to represent multiple skin colors, Walker forces us to confront the internalized or naturalized stereotypes we hold,” exhibition curator Jessi DiTillio wrote in the gallery guide. “Her exploration of racist stereotypes through the lens of the silhouette emphasizes the flatness of these images, yet also highlights their persuasive power.”
In an interview with The New Yorker in 2007, Walker explained why she began using silhouettes in her artwork. According to the article, finding “a nineteenth-century silhouette of a little black girl in profile” in an American art reference book was cathartic. “What I recognized, besides narrative and historicity and racism, was this very physical displacement: the paradox of removing a form from a blank surface that in turn creates a black hole. I was struck by the irony of so many of my concerns being addressed: blank/black, hole/whole, shadow/substance, etc.,” Walker said.
Walker’s exhibition begins with a piece called “African/American.” Milliken said it sets the tone for what the audience is going to experience. The piece is a silhouette of a woman possibly naked wearing shackles or jewelry, but the details are unclear.
“We’re not sure if she’s falling or if she’s reclining but she occupies the entire space of the composition from corner to corner. There’s so many ambiguities in that image,” Milliken said. “That is summed up in the title African-slash-American. The identity of the woman who is unsure about her place in society.”
The show ends with a large-scale print series, “Emancipation Approximation.” Walker incorporates Greek mythology into a slave narrative.
“It’s beautiful to behold, but you have difficult things to look at here,” Milliken said. “I think that she uses that beauty to seduce us into these difficult narratives.”
Within the art world itself Walker is divisive, evoking backlash because of her use of negative images and stereotypes.
Walker’s exhibit opened in July at bam and crossed over with another exhibit, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair” which ends on Aug. 14. The two vastly different works of art presented a clear juxtaposition of Black life and culture.
"Inspiring beauty is a celebration that puts the Black body in the highest achievement of fashion tradition in a modern contemporary context,” Milliken said. “I see the exhibition upstairs as a celebration and a story about empowerment. Then you come to this exhibition and you are reminded that things are not all that rosy.”
Walker’s exhibition at bam ends Nov. 27. It will then be on display at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass in Amherst, Massachusetts.