What does it mean to look at Kara Walker?
Since her first mural in 1994, this Negress has captured the minds, hearts, and genitals of her fellow Negroes, plastering them on the walls of the National Gallery of Art, MoMA, the Whitney, and countless galleries and institutions across the Nation. Auntie Walker’s murals are populated by silhouettes of what we are told are Black bodies. We are also told that they are Black bodies in anguish, suffering under the yoke of American oppression.
We know what a Black body in anguish looks like, we think. These are the bodies of Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” Lupita Nyong’o’s internationally-acclaimed back arching in carefully arranged pain. These are the bodies of Ava Duvernay’s “Selma,” taller-than-life Black human beings ferocious in their Biblical dignity. These are the bodies of Kehinde Wiley’s Barack Obama and LL Cool J, blessed with iron eyes to pierce the looker and turn their attempts at voyeurism to dust.
But those are not Kara Walker’s Black Bodies. The Black bodies Auntie Walker samples are not proud; they are not strong; they are not good; they are not granted eyes; they are not beautiful. Take one of Walker’s recent works: “Auntie Walker’s Wall Sampler of Savages” and its partner “Auntie Walker’s Wall Sampler for Civilians.” Auntie Walker’s Black bodies are muddy, gritty, twisted, ugly. They are rendered as silhouettes, stripped of all eyes to see and hearts to hope. Their flabby lips, the only facial feature visible, grin apeish grins. They suck their master’s genitals. Their severed heads bounce about the walls. Little black girls and little black boys are stripped naked. Black breasts hang heavy. Black blood and gristle pools warmly.
These bodies are not even given the dignity of humanity, not even given the chance to suffer their trauma with the righteous indignation of Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo. They are monsters, minstrels, punching bags, jokes, caricatures. They are nothing; there is no one, no human, there.
Frantz Fanon reminds us that “The Negro is a toy in the white man’s hand.” Throughout history, aesthetic representations of Black bodies have become tools for the systematic oppression of real Black folks. These representations rob Black bodies of their humanity. They become objects for white supremacy to play with, simultaneously political tools and sources of laughter and mockery. The theorist Calvin Warren points to Uncle Remus, and Uncle Tom, the caricatured Negro passed about in antebellum Confederate propaganda. These caricatures are examples of the power white art has over Blackness. In caricature, whiteness performs its greatest magic act; the Black body becomes a toy.
We can see caricature everywhere, but particularly in low art: mass produced art, non-professional art, aesthetic work that would not belong in a museum. Caricature thus abounds in advertisements, Disney cartoons, propaganda, mass film, magazine sketches, and burlesque, and is absent in the art — assuredly guilty of its own racial sins — of Velazquez, Calvi, and Gerome.
This link between the violence of the caricature and low art is no accident. High art — art worthy of cultural protection and institutionalization — operates by establishing standards of taste, dignity, and goodness, normative evaluations of artistic beauty. Despite high art’s inherent fetishization of Blackness, its constraints do force Blackness to be represented beautifully, even with dignity. Without these constraints, low art is able to inject ugliness into Blackness, delegitimizing it so that it becomes an object not for aesthetic appreciation but for mockery.
Why then, would Auntie Walker so gleefully and ferociously wrest away our dignity, pinning us up against the museum walls like butterflies in a white man’s study?
In bringing caricature into the museum, Kara Walker screws with the institution itself. If Beyonce’s “Apeshit” reveals a commitment to Black absorption into institutions of power, then Auntie Walker’s wall samplers challenge that institution on its own terms. When artists like Wiley, McQueen, and Duvernay remain committed to elevating the Black body, to placing it among high art, Walker rejects this obsession with elitism. Instead, she reclaims Blackness through the dangerous violence of low art.
High art pretends as though it is the only aesthetic possibility. It believes that the set of racist criteria it champions ought to police all works of art. Walker proffers her Black bodies as evidence that high art’s desire for hegemony is doomed to fail. There have always existed, she reminds the museum world, alternate ways of representing Blackness. Walker’s Black bodies burst onto the scene of high art to remind it of the existence of a counterculture, a countercanon, a counter-aesthetic rooted in low art.
Walker is of course aware that the alternative modes of representation she explores are anti-Black. That is, though caricature as low art breaks with the specific racist constraints of high art, it remains trapped within a white supremacist aesthetic project. Caricature escapes high art, but not whiteness.
In the wake of works like Beyonce’s “Apeshit,” one begins to wonder if there exist aesthetic possibilities for marginalized artists outside of the confines of high art. In caricature, Walker presents just such a possibility. She finds this potential in low art, which if still dominated by white supremacy, allows for alternative representations of Blackness.
Walker thus sets up us to question further: What if we had power to redefine Blackness, or indeed any marginalized identity? What if low art gives us a specific and privileged path to a kind of self-definition, or a new form of political critique? In low art, Walker finds more than respectability politics, more than power, more than liberal hand-wringing, more than racist expectations of what beauty must be, what art must be. In low art, she finds freedom.
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