Walker exhibits blur boundaries between art and racial politics

If anyone has mastered artistic technique and can skillfully weave in racial politics as well, it’s SoA Professor Kara Walker. With two exhibits that opened last Thursday, April 21—one with drawings, the other with short films—Walker captures several themes important to her vision of “Modern Black Identity,” as one of her pieces is titled.

With the name, “Dust Jackets for the Niggerati and Supporting Dissertations, Drawings submitted ruefully by Dr. Kara E. Walker,” the drawing exhibit at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Gallery (530 W. 22nd St., between 10th and 11th avenues) was bound to be chilling and intense. The extensive use of graphite and ink was an appropriate choice since all of the pieces concern black-white relations. In fact, one drawing, named “White Space,” portrays a demonic-looking black woman baring her teeth against the pitch-black opening of a cave. Overhead, near the top of the drawing, the words “white space” are clearly traced in the soot of smeared graphite. The black figures are oddly cartoonish in nature—the stereotypical African-American physiognomy is very apparent in particular pieces, such as “And Encourages the Youth,” which displays four African-American heads on pikes, or “Cover of my negro novella,” featuring a black man with oversized lips dragging a limp black body. However, the cartoonish nature calls attention to the way African Americans were once characterized and to the racial stereotypes that still pervade today.

On the other side of the island, at Lehmann Maupin Gallery (201 Chrystie St., between Stanton and Rivington streets), two of the three films at Walker’s second exhibit were disappointing in comparison to her drawings. Both were a mere minute and 50 seconds, and the first of which, “Levee,” portrays a dark forest with the tree silhouettes against a sky on the cusp of reaching sunrise—and nothing else. The other shorter film, “Bad Blues,” is visually appealing, with rich browns, but contains confusing subject matter. The film flashed continuous three-second snippets of an African-American girl playing guitar, singing, putting her guitar away, and picking it back up. Both are beautiful but lack the racial politics Walker captures in her drawings.

The longer film, “Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale,” however, is the gem of the two exhibits. The video uses silhouette puppets to play the story of a young white woman, Miss Pipi, who falls in love with a slave, identifiable by his racialized silhouette. A white man who is courting Miss Pipi finds out about her affair and cuts off the slave’s penis with the help of a younger boy, and then they burn the body. The cartoonish silhouettes and the jerky motions of the puppets make the scenes even more horrific to watch, especially when the silhouette puppet is actually set on fire and the video captures it crackling and shriveling.

With entrance free on both ends, it would be a pity for Columbians not to visit the exhibits, which run through June 4. Their content is emotionally palpable and relevant to the issues of identity one often learns about in the classroom, like DuBois’ “Souls of Black Folk,” or in the world after college, when a post-racial society will likely be a dream still being achieved.