‘Hang me des ez high as you please, Brer Fox,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, ‘but do fer de Lord’s sake don't fling me in dat brier- patch,’ sezee.
‘Drown me des ez deep ez you please, Brer Fox,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, ‘but do don’t fling me in dat brier-patch,’ sezee.
‘Skin me, Brer Fox,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, ‘snatch out my eyeballs, t’ar out my years by de roots, en cut off my legs,’ sezee, ‘but do please, Brer Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier- patch,’ sezee.
Co’se Brer Fox wanter hurt Brer Rabbit bad ez he kin, so he cotch ’im by de behime legs en slung ’im right in de middle er de brier-patch.’
— excerpt from Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings,
1881, iBooks 2003
When Brer Rabbit’s indignation at the Tar Baby’s lack of manners clouds his ordinarily discerning eye, he manages to turn his surprise to advantage the instant Brer Fox permits his own ego to gloat. Brer Rabbit feeds Brer Fox a surfeit of the sweet taste of victory, supplants the hunter’s hunger with elevated pride. Brer Rabbit bemoans his defeat, laments his own weakness, misleading Brer Fox into believing this penultimate moment is his decisive coup. Lao Tzu reminds the creative warrior that weakness employed correctly can entice one’s well fortified opponent to misstep, over-confident.
By conceding “You can do whatever you want,” Brer Rabbit muddles Brer Fox’s thoughts; faced with myriad options, indecision harries Brer Fox from making the next step. It’s a common enough strategy; and standard vaudeville comic fare: W.C. Fields knocks back two shots to help the straight man stay sober — and to ensure the selfless Fields is two shots closer to feeling tight. One finds a trove of variations on the reversal as ruse in the arsenal of "psychs" available to rival siblings, bosom besties, competing colleagues and the like. Devoted amity gathers strength through feints of ersatz enmity, bouts of bogus belligerence; the adept acting out of volatile defiance volleyed to and fro while doing the dozens with cousins.
An understanding of process as agency directs the creative experience — the ongoing sharing of true erudition, burgeoning, open-ended, irresolute. Eschewing the pigeonholes of production, Kara Walker brings to bear our ubiquitous — and human — rights to access narrative traditions using the Trickster’s singularly quixotic détournement of history (her story, my story, ours). She not only reminds us that the visual arts arrive before us complete with the devices of its literary component; Walker winks while advertising in a stage whisper that every narrative bespeaks — and thus begets — our relationships. By itemizing the available roles we’ve so easily accepted as model citizens of culture, Walker urges us to look beyond the supersession of commodity consumers by content providers. The spectacle remains the unfettered tool of capital, while we remain its engine. An economy of merit will not stop the violations we envision and endure. These signs merely obscure the integrity that fosters every conscious relationship; the soundness of a sustainable peace free of the violence we’re loathe to witness follows our embrace of the beach under the paving stones. Of course, I’m tired of my relatives and their tired old expectations.
Like everyone who ever learned as a child to trace with colored crayons the invisible floes of energy interlaced in and out of a blank sheet of paper via random spherical auras crowding the atmosphere of classroom space, the artist delights in exploring the intimate wisdom embodied in the familiar saying : “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Walker’s chatty exhibition title echoes what 19th century readers and writers called the “Advertisement.” Most often following the preface or introduction, this Advertisement sold no product and identified no sponsor. The Advertisement established the ensuing narrative’s provenance as “a true story,” it confirmed that the events recounted actually happened, and that those events featured the author as protagonist. Published in 1849, The Life of Jim Henson, Formerly a Slave as Narrated by Himself with a Preface by T. Binney is supposed to have served as the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which appeared three years later, in 1852. Henson’s Advertisement adheres to the very manners and decorum targeted by “Our Nig,” Ms Walker. By contrast, Mrs. Stowe’s Life Among the Lowly, as a work of fiction, featured no such Advertisement.
Unlike narrative texts of our day, publishers routinely engaged illustrators to enhance the quality of their authors’ tales — superior editions incorporated more images than cheap knock-offs, with color illustrations an indication of deluxe printings aimed at readers of refinement and means (or as Ms Walker phrases it, “those of a heartier disposition”). Walker’s mania for accessing the vocabulary of figurative illustration may not be exhaustive (as she confesses in the conclusion of her Artist Statement), but the range of styles she draws into these works certainly astounds. From reworking figures and landscapes found among the “one hundred and twenty engravings on wood” in Washington Irving’s Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman to her fluid blending of studies Delacroix made in pastel for his 1828 Sardanapalus with her own tension-wracked studies in ink that render Edward Kienholz’s nightmarish Five Car Stud onto a collision course that many visitors will effectively (dis)miss.
I suppose I’ve arrived at as good a point as any other to remark on the show’s Artist Statement. Following on the heels of the guarantees set forth in the Advertisement, Walker assures her audience that she has “complied up to a point” with their expectations, adds that she’s “tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model…’ a featured member of [her] racial group and/or … gender niche… It’s too much.” In effect, she manages to goad not only “random groups of white (male) supremacist goons” to throw her into the briars; she explicitly provokes “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.” The first example I saw of this ill-informed scramble for promotion up the ranks of PCIP cop reared its silly head as an Opinion in John Yau’s Hyperallergic. A screed in need of no further attention, I can’t help but consider how this intransigent politicking arises from a superficial search for a bogus security, twin tombstone towers of tit for tat bullying that rush to tear down what no one wants to build. Demands that Walker — or anyone — profess what the party needs to hear professed expose the makers of such demands to be so many frustrated purveyors of “a kind of patched together notion of race purity with flags and torches and impressive displays of perpetrator-as-victim…” Like Brer Rabbit, Walker grasps the illusion of power underpinning America’s crippling race constructs to reveal a crutch that furthers atrophy where none need healing; dependence on the fantasy combination of mythology and sociopathy results in a history of warmongerers who “lost the wars they started, and always will…” As advertised as true, Trickster returns each fallacy to its origin, and freed of tethers reduced to moral scales, the trickster learns to teach that we must own nothing but the truth.
Ms Walker’s art has always addressed the way absence compels fulfillment. Formally speaking, this approach is fundamental to the artistic product: literature and music works with the interplay of sound and silence, light and dark compose the visuals in film and painting, space and solids define sculpture and architecture. In the effort to convey the narrative sense of history that Walker returns to with ever-increasing insight and scope, this conflation of contrasts spotlights an American story glaring with shadows that elongate by the hour. Disappearing at nightfall, the shadows are recast by moonlight, reshaped again with the dawn; shadows that our striving for light would seem sooner forget, as if one might exist without the other. Whether or not Walker’s promises are fulfilled remains a verdict best left to a definitive (albeit implausible) tally weighing the artist’ pros and cons forwarded by the anticipated cohort of “Collectors of Fine Art…,” Bargain hunters, Scholars, Art Historians, Students of Color, Parents and their innocent children, School Teachers, Prestigious Academic Societies, former husbands and former lovers, bemused and silent Critics, Gallery Directors and even The Final President of these Untidy States. That she eschews the mantle of spokesperson or guiding light hardly precludes the spectacle driving our late-capitalist system’s conspicuous enquirers from turning her into one more query return on the banks of the google bitstream.
The wall opposite the reception desk features a triptych titled Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit), that alludes to the petrification of a population engulfed by its commitment to fossil fuels. None of the figures appears related to any other. Instead, the black pool that swamps only their feet or all but their head, consumes their attention, their production, extinguishing the lives of all, including one whose escape is foiled by a slip-up on its slickness. All heads are turned away from us and each other — even she who carries a corpse looks expressly away from her cargo. All except for one face who looks directly at the fourth wall, an expression that reacts with eerie incredulity at our inability to lend a hand — or perhaps at our willful indifference to join hands with each other.
It may seem that I read too much into Walker’s art. Surely, it remains up to each visitor to arrive at their own impressions of the work, conclusive or not. But one steps into a gallery for reasons founded in a common acceptance that there are people who create expressions of life’s experiences that we call art. That these creations use a shared language is maybe not so evident in visual arts as it is in literature. Still, art schools provide future artists with an awareness of the many tools available as well as countless examples of how people use these tools. I’ve already mentioned how Walker — like other artists — works with what’s absent. In a sense, this interest in absence introduces Walker and us to a strategy of access. When she gives us The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (after Delacroix, Kienholz) to contemplate, we are faced with the cycling of contemporary events through the stories of a historical fiction. That is, if we concern ourselves at all with the title. I’m sure there are way more people who are unaware of the title’s references — and will never investigate them — than there are people who will do a quick google search for a little context. Maybe the particulars are of no importance. These tableaus highlight an everyday violence spanning centuries and continents and continues unabated, choking whatever beauty may catch the light defining time and space. No matter that Delacroix painted a deathbed scene; nor that we find no swimming pool in which to drown Walker’s Sardanapalus; nor that the Kienholz work “quoted” by Walker is an assemblage installation he named “Five Car Stud”; nor that Sardanapalus is a fiction. Maybe the outrage that audiences — critics, colleagues, the public — express when faced with art that lacks beauty, an art that explicitly turns our ugliness into a study for vignettes returns an outrage that also continues unabated. I actually had a man walk up to me and say, “She’s always into the porn. She loves it.” Perhaps the inability of the human project to develop a nurturing community justifies calling an artist’s focus on that failure “porn.” What I think Walker is driving at reaches beyond identity toward the part we all play — the model roles we all find difficult — in maintaining a model totality. As long as we cannot engender a model community of humans, how can we justify maintaining the illusion of model individuals? Fifty years have passed since Guy Debord observed in a text Walker knows we have yet to supersede,
The history that brought culture's relative autonomy into being, along with ideological illusions concerning that autonomy, is also expressed as the history of culture… Culture is the locus of the search for lost unity. In the course of this search, culture as a separate sphere is obliged to negate itself.
— from “Thesis 180,” The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, 1967, tr Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994)
In Walker’s Christ’s Entry into Journalism, she positions the “Final President of the United States” in the place occupied by the ass-borne Christ in Gustave Doré’s capacious canvas depicting the start of The Passion. In contrast to the early French modernist’s near-abstract choreography of sturdy brushstrokes, Walker surrounds our new leader with a sprawling collage of figure drawings. Instead of the imposing, monumental city walls that Doré paints with a definition that eludes his crowd of figures — and dwarfs the main character — foreshadowing the final impasse that awaits, Walker provides but one structural element: the free-floating branch of a trunkless tree. Its strange fruit — the victim of a lynching bounded on each side by a pair of swinging trapezistes — crowns her illustrated catalog of how the “spectacle, whose function it is to bury history in culture, presses the pseudo-novelty of its modernist means into the service of a strategy that defines it in the profoundest sense.” The upper corners of the piece are peopled by two knocked out moonshiners reminiscent of Rip van Winkle’s twenty year nod, sentries who ensure that a deep and protracted sleep defines the effectiveness of our defensive vigilance. The lower corners feature the busts of a rather alert Frederick Douglass, given the apparent funereal albeit “Free at last” countenance of MLK Jr opposite. Here, the artist clearly accesses the campaigning Trump’s assertion that Mr Douglass is doing a fine job. Not far from Dr King, the Batman appears to be looting the Mummy. The caped crusader is about to pass Salome who carries the head of Trayvon on a serving platter. Near the center, an irregular ring of five white men are engaged in a circle jerk. Or is this the Pentagon’s work? At least three other white males —one of them, a riot cop in full gear — look like they’re raping black women. A Confederate flag-bearing, Nazi saluting white boy goosesteps his way towards James Brown. Behind him, a shopping bag laden black woman in a fake fur walks straight for a cartoon manhole. And Mr Trump squats like a dwarf with the giant robes of the KKK on his shoulders, his penis replaced by a distended orifice spewing what may either be vomitus or a very heavy menstrual flow. If we compare this portrait to the first illustration of Rip van Winkle in Washington Irving’s tale, he lacks nothing but a scythe akin to that of the Grim Reaper. There are more figures present that put me in mind of Middleton Harris’s document-rich visual history of African America, figures that allude to the mid-twentieth century cartoons of Tex Avery, of hairdos that reflect black folks’ struggle to follow paths that straighten and narrow and twist and curl and lock us in and then relax us, keep us rapt in thinking how you look is all there is, in cities where people never say hello.
For all I’ve felt obliged to teach myself in the wake of Walker’s latest exhibit — and there remain more works that moved me thus than I describe here — it’s clear that one must read her confession of fatigue as a challenge to join her in advertising truth to power. Fundamentally speaking, what serves the truth she references is a task for all, for what Debord and his cohort posit as the totality of expressions that already defy the baseless orders and lousy roles modeled after the spectacle. Not one of us stands on higher ground than any others; if it’s violence that we perpetrate, it’s because we are blind to the fact that the backs of human corpses do not offer a few survivors some chance at transcendence, nor any true levity.
What do we demand in backing the power of everyday life against hierarchical power? We demand everything. We are taking our stand in a generalized conflict stretching from domestic squabbles to revolutionary war, and we have gambled on the will to live. This means that we must survive as antisurvivors. Fundamentally we are concerned only with the moments when life breaks through the glaciation of survival, whether those moments are unconscious or theorized, historical (e.g. revolution) or personal.
—The Society of the Spectacle
Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to Present the Most Astounding and Important Painting Show of the Fall Art Show Viewing Season!
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.
to the first edition
The following memoir was written from the dictation of Josiah Henson. A portion of the story was told, which, when written, was read to him, that any errors of statement might be corrected. The substance of it, therefore, the facts, the reflections, and very often the words are his; and little more than the structure of the sentences belongs to another.
The narrative, in this form, necessarily loses the attraction derived from the earnest manner, the natural eloquence of a man who tells a story in which he is deeply interested; but it is hoped that enough remains to repay perusal, and that the character of the man, and the striking nature of the events of his life, will be thought to justify the endeavour to make them more extensively known. The story has this advantage-that it is not fiction, but fact; and it will be found fruitful in instruction by those who attentively consider its lessons.
Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black appeared in 1859. Harriet E. Wilson’s autobiographical novel is believed the first by an African-American woman. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is credited with having recovered the long lost book in 1981.