On the opening of her first UK show, celebrated American artist Kara Walker talks about why her controversial work challenges racism, not – as critics claim – upholds it.
Text | Kathryn Hughes for The Telegraph
Photo | Gene Pittman
At first glance you cannot quite believe what you are seeing. Life-sized silhouettes made of black paper have been pasted directly on to the gallery walls.
The cut-outs, you realize with a kind of mounting horror, comprise a deeply racist depiction of plantation life in America’s antebellum South. In one corner are outlines of thick-lipped minstrels, fat mammies and luscious young girls with jutting haunches. Over there are silhouettes of podgy plantation owners and petticoated Southern belles.
The figures are like the inhabitants of some nightmarish Freudian dream world, groping, sucking, ejaculating, defecating and doing terrible things both to themselves and to one another. Half of you wants to look away from the gallery wall in disgust, while the other part feels compelled to stand and stare.
To say that Kara Walker is used to causing controversy would be an understatement. Ever since the 43-year-old African American artist took the cultural establishment by storm 20 years ago with her mural 'Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart’, critics have accused her not simply of going up to the edge but plunging right over it.
By attempting to expose hateful racial fantasies, they argue, she ends up giving them an obscene vitality. Walker’s advocates, on the other hand, claim that her work functions as a devastating critique of the way that all of us, black as well as white, continue to be complicit in ethnic stereotyping in the 21st century.
At the home in New York City which she shares with her 16-year-old daughter Octavia, Walker admits that she is not sure what reaction her work will receive from British gallery goers.
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