Ms Walker at London’s Camden Arts Centre
Reviewed by Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
“We at Camden Arts Centre are
Exceedingly Proud to Present an Exhibition of Capable Artworks by the Notable
Hand of the Celebrated American, Kara Elizabeth Walker, Negress.” The full
title - sardonic and incendiary – in verbose 19th century vernacular
style, captures the spirit of Kara Elizabeth Walker’s first major UK solo show.
three stark, minimalist galleries in the Camden Arts Centre, the provocative exhibition
showcases important examples of the African American artist’s recent work. Ms Walker’s signature silhouette figures
dominate, but are complimented by powerful graphite drawings and the controversial
shadow-puppet animation Fall Frum Grace,
Miss Pipi's Blue Tale. The
Centre also devotes its impressive space to a
programme of films selected by the artist, talks by specialists, musical
playlists, and a reading room where a short film featuring a piece-to-camera by
Walker is screened.
The Atlanta College of Art graduate’s pictures
are peopled with subjects from the past and more recent episodes
[although not included here she has focused recently on the dehumanisation of those affected by Hurricane
Katrina.] Using deep research into
the USA’s gun culture and White Supremacist ideology which she parodies - the
daughter of equally acclaimed artist Larry Walker - uses
to revisit and translate the country’s mythology.
imposing charcoal sketches which dominate the arctic white walls of Gallery 1 are
from Dust Jackets for the Niggerati
- a collection surveying key phases in African American history. Mostly shadowy and obsidian, the images are haunting
and profound, enticing the viewer to inspect, examine, and investigate further.
More than simplistic sketches – see her subjects expressive faces – they deliver
shrewd comments on enslavement, the US Civil War, the post emancipation
Reconstruction Period, migration and historical and contemporary racist
centrepiece - and most unsettling - is The
Daily Constitution 1878 (2011), which
recreates in excruciating detail a news story from the Atlanta, Georgia newspaper.
The violent graphite drawing that documents
the hideous lynching of an unnamed Black woman; where the gruesome yet ingenious
crime of the perpetrators makes the scene even more disturbing.
violence, racism and the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) - the motive for the mass migration
from south to north of thousands of African Americans - overshadows African
American history is the immediate reaction to Urban Relocator in which a ghoulish cloaked Ku Klux Klan figure
tends a cotton plant.
and the striking Another Ancestor, are
cryptic - hidden messages and concealed signs that need more than a glance to absorb
altogether different atmosphere of the larger Gallery 2 is mostly given over to
Ms Walker’s trademark silhouettes. With Auntie Walker’s Wall Samplers for Civilians
and Auntie Walker’s Wall Sampler for
Savages - white on black walls or black on
white walls – the Columbia University professor of visual
art shows her
expertise in the discipline’s history. At its birth, this genre was infused
with the pseudo-scientific racism of brain measurements and twisted readings of
physiognomy. Satirising stock
characters from the USA’s past, the artist’s intelligently-conceived pieces are astute and sharp. Ms Walker not only probes
contemporary issues but additionally, many of the 18th century style
cut-outs likewise focus on topical events as well as articulating the brutality
and violence of US history.
recalling the tradition of Black
ephemera, in which people of African descent
are [mis]represented in advertising and memorabilia as subhuman curios, the artist’s stencilled
profiles, question American folklore. Fearless comments on racist imagery [mammy
figures, and minstrels, grinning picaninnies,
savages, cannibals, golliwogs, hyper sexed animalistic Black men and seductive
Black women] parody the standard caricatures of Black people. By mocking the
foundation of these racist imageries and cultures, Ms Walker’s poignant art
twists and subverts - the predator becomes prey, and is disempowered and
belittled in the process.
Fall Frum Grace - Miss
Pipi’s Blue Tale screened in
the dim, high-ceilinged Gallery 3, is a video installation combining stop-frame
silhouette animation with snatches of photography. Dramatising an encounter
between an enslaved African and the forbidden fruit fantasy that is a white
woman - the pretext cited to murder thousands of Black men in horrific
ritualistic killings – the 18 minute narrative both shocks and amuses.
into the subliminal connotations which underpin US history Walker navigates a
dangerous artistic precipe. Though unsettling, Ms Walker’s work is skilful and inventive
– she succeeds because her art is also radical and enlightening.
Camden Arts Centre
London NW3 6DG
5 January 2014
Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.