Thursday, May 29, 2014

LECTURE: Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker / Saint Louis, MO / June 6, 2014

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw photo via
Presented by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, PhD, Associate Professor & Undergraduate Chair, University of Pennsylvania
Friday, June 6, 2014, 6:30pm

The Farrell Auditorium
One Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park
Saint Louis, MO

Former Romare Bearden fellow to talk on risks of exhibiting controversial art

Text | Chris King for The St. Louis American
Published | Thursday, May 29, 2014

When Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw delivers a free public lecture on the work of Kara Walker at the Saint Louis Art Museum at 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 6, she’ll be returning to a city where she first learned about censorship of controversial African-American art.

Shaw will present updated ideas drawn from her 2004 study “Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker.” Her talk is part of the museum’s public programming in connection with its exhibit “Anything but Civil: Kara Walker’s Vision of the Old South,” which closes August 10.

Though “Anything but Civil” is far from Walker’s most provocative work, it does contain the sort of disturbing imagery drawn from American slavery that has upset many viewers. For example, one drawing in the show depicts two disembodied heads of black men. One of the heads, encircled by a spiked slave collar, is being told by the other, “You just tryin’ to act white!”

It’s work like this, as Shaw shows in her book, that made Walker an international black superstar in the white-dominated art world whose most vocal critics are African Americans. Shaw saw that dynamic first-hand right here in St. Louis in 1993-4, when she was a Romare Bearden graduate fellow at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

The black community’s outrage, in that instance, was not directed toward Walker’s work, but rather that of another black artist named Robert Colescott. When the University of Missouri – St. Louis hung a Colescott painting of an interracial couple that incorporates stereotypical racial imagery in a visible public space, there was a public outcry. Black students and community members, including civil rights icon Norman Seay, led a successful effort to have the painting taken down and hung in a less conspicuous place.

“That incident was very formative to my understanding of the stakeholders who are involved, the museum administration – in this case, an academic administration – but also the concerns that the larger community has when it comes to displaying works of art,” Shaw said.

“The students at UMSL were very upset by this painting appearing in their academic environment. They thought they should not be disturbed by unpleasant and provocative images. They didn’t want that, and they didn’t want to have a conversation about it. No!”

Her experience of this controversy, she said, helped her to understand Walker and the outrage often sparked by her work.

“Her work still, over the past 20 years, has really found a lot of vocal critics who feel it can’t be displayed without very significant context being given – wall labels, an audio guide, a panel discussion,” Shaw said.

Or, in the case of her own forthcoming public lecture on Walker’s work in St. Louis, a talk by a visiting scholar of color.

“And not all museums have educational and curatorial staff prepared and trained to handle controversial issues surrounding race and the history of enslavement and violence in the United States,” Shaw said. “It remains an enormous problem for American museums.”

Shaw first came to St. Louis to work in a program specifically designed to address this problem. She is one of 18 African-American art professionals who have benefitted from the Romare Bearden Fellowship, which grooms people from under-represented groups in curatorial skills at an elite art museum.

“I don’t think I’d be sitting here today as a tenured professor at an Ivy League school had I not had the opportunity to work with objects at the Saint Louis Art Museum and come to a better understanding of museum work,” she said.

She is associate professor of American Art at the University of Pennsylvania, located in Philadelphia. “The University of Pennsylvania,” she emphasized, “not Penn State – they are two very different schools.” She currently serves as undergraduate chair of the Department of Art History and is curating an exhibition and catalogue of works by African-American artists in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“African Americans are incredibly underrepresented as curators,” she said. “For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has over 100 curators – and not one single African American.”

She said the fact that so few museums have black curatorial staff limits the ability of museums to risk public controversy by exhibiting work by controversial African-American artists like Kara Walker.

“Many museums don’t want to go there,” she said. “They don’t want to show really controversial and provocative art work if they don’t feel they can adequately explain that work to their audience.”

She admitted to finding it a “big surprise,” given her experience in St. Louis 20 years ago, to find the Saint Louis Art Museum among the institutions willing to exhibit Kara Walker’s work.

“It’s a city that struggles to fully integrate its many neighborhoods,” she said of St. Louis, with several pauses to choose the correct words. “Walker does not receive an easy reception in such contexts. It comes down to the racial, ethnic and class lines that keep us apart. That’s a lot of what Kara Walker questions in her work – issues of historical racism and inequity.”

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