The fourth event of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Art at UCL took place at the Victoria Miro gallery space in North London. Prof. Tamar Garb’s and Dr. Rizvana Bradley’s MA classes, and several other research students, visited the gallery to discuss Kara Walker’s latest exhibition “Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First“ (1 October – 17 November 2015). After an exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre at the end of 2013/beginning of 2014, this is her first commercial gallery show in London.
On the top floor of the gallery, Walker is showing a wall-size black and white photograph of the civil war monument carved into the Stone Mountain in Georgia. The white supremacist Ku Klux Klan claimed the mountain as their spiritual birthplace in 1915; the carving was only completed in 1972. In an interview with the Guardian, Walker explains that the exhibition’s concept came about after her visit to the stone monument depicting President Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. Jackson.
On the wall to the left of the photograph, the artist has created a kind of illusionary tableau vivant. Her cut-out silhouette figures depict donkeys, horses, men and women in black paper, covering the wall in a multiplicity of troubling gestures referencing flagellation and persecution, amongst other things. Three male riders – one of them sits backwards on his horse – are at the heart of this work. “Equestrianism is a male trope, and she plays with that,” Bradley points out. The black/whiteness and animal/humanesque are cutting into each other – and seem to merge the theme of race and sexuality. What could the term phantasmagoric mean in this context, the group wonders?
Moving on, Garb encourages all of us to get close to the cut-outs. These black silhouettes stuck to the white gallery wall, she calls a frieze. Referring to the Parthenon Frieze at the British Museum, Walker’s silhouettes are echoing old forms – they re-inhabit them – and at the same time, she adds new meaning in the contemporary post-colonial context. Her art historically and sexually charged silhouettes are rich in detail: the three horses in the centre are moving energetically. Around them, blood appears dripping out of stabbed bodies, phallic swords animate pleasure and pain, figures perform acts of cannibalism, and the flag of Europe is depicted on the far left of the frieze. In this way, the frieze seems to represent themes of farcical savagery, nurturing, and pleasuring within Walker’s black and white symbolism.
On the opposite shorter wall, small-size watercolour studies are presented in a framed and orderly manner, while content illustrates Walker’s artistic intuition and rapid working progress. Garb points out that thinking takes on a haptic form when it is translated into a visual object through the artist’s process of making. This, she also calls a process of knowledge production.
One the fourth wall upstairs, a large triptych with a wounded female corpus in its centre is also installed. But we run out of time. The gallery wants to close. We go downstairs to also have a look at Walker’s three large-size colour paintings. We see more phalluses and demonic creatures, and wonder whether we have detected a portrait of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. The soft white lines on Four Idioms on Negro Art #2 Graffiti (2015) seem to have been drawn onto the paint, after the colours had dried up.
Kara Walker has stated that she struggles with painting; and that is why she has started making black and white cut-outs. Even though vivid colours can add meaning to artworks, she communicates her voice most clearly to us – the viewers – through black and white silhouettes. But eventually, it is not to forget that the quality of her images relies on one rooted body of history, instead of on two separate strands of narrative.
- Tim Adams, Kara Walker: ‘There is a moment in life where one becomes black”, published at The Guardian Online, 27/09/2015, available at http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/sep/27/kara-walker-interview-victoria-miro-gallery-atlanta.