Weaponizing Cartoonish Silhouettes: Clever as Hell
So, yeah, it’s been an intense couple of weeks, both here in Minneapolis and around the country. I’ve bounced around from not having the mental bandwidth for newsletters to maybe having the bandwidth but feeling like art newsletters are too frivolous for what was happening. And I sat with that for a while, but slowly started thinking that, you know, there’s a hell of a lot of art that’s directly relevant to what’s going on.
Kara Walker, for instance.
I was a little bit late getting to Kara Walker; she’s been active and prominent my entire adult life, but I was pretty well into my 30s before I actively identified her as a person whose work I needed to actively seek out.
Installation shot of Walker’s Darkytown Rebellion, 2001.
But once I was hooked, I was hooked. Walker’s work is arresting on several levels; she’s really smart, really clever, really angry, and strangely funny, or at least something that feels like funny but might be something else. The work that she’s best known for is her scenes presented in silhouette of antebellum southern life, usually showing enslaved people and slave-owners interacting. The silhouette format itself has a strong visual hook that grabs your brain even before the subject matter starts to register; this visual stickiness is enhanced by the exaggerated, “cartoon-y” way that she depicts both figures and action.
And then, of course, the subject matter hits home. The exaggerated action she shows tends to highlight the abuse and degradation of life under chattel slavery. It’s not uncommon for Walker’s scenes to show rape and torture, which were key, terrible facts of life under American slavery. They show patrols searching for escaped enslaved people. Sometimes they show revolts, often with comically overstated violence.
Installation shot of Walker’s Grub for Sharks: A Concession to the Negro Populace, 2009
It feels weird to invoke Quentin Tarantino here because I think he’s pretty well established himself as a shithead, some of which shitheadery is specifically around racial issues (this is a man who wrote himself a part in Pulp Fiction so that he can say the n-word onscreen), and I think “maybe well-intentioned but extremely problematic and half-baked” is the kindest way I could describe Django Unchained; BUT. One of Tarantino’s cinematic hallmarks is violence so over-the-top that it short-circuits your mental shock reflex and sometimes registers as funny, and I think that exact current is in play with Kara Walker’s work, only much more skillfully and with a more conscious point.
I’m fascinated by the way Walker is able to take a visual grammar that our brains code as harmless and fun—silhouettes with exaggerated proportions—and use that as a way to convey horror. It’s a clever and amazing use of visual media. Straightforward depictions of terrible things can get screened out by our brains as an involuntary psychological defense mechanism; Walker finds a way around that. And adding another layer of resonance, silhouettes themselves were very much in vogue as a type of visual art in the 19th century, the period she’s generally depicting.
And why is Walker’s work so important? I think the key is this: one of the reasons that racism persists is that, for people who aren’t directly affected by it, it can be way too easy to tune out the knowledge of it, even if you’re well-meaning, simply because it’s so emotionally difficult. I mean, ask yourself: when you were in school, how much detail did they go into in conveying how awful the experience of slavery was? By using the techniques she’s worked out, Kara Walker finds a way to pipe at least some of that information straight into the brain. That’s powerful and important.
Of course, Walker doesn’t just work in 2-dimensional media. Her highest-profile recent work was the enormous sculpture A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, created as a temporary installation in a disused sugar factory in New York in 2014.
Like her silhouettes, A Subtlety was provocative and many-layered. It made a statement through sheer size, and through direct allusion to the Sphinx. It provoked reactions through its juxtaposition of nude, hypersexualized breasts and posterior with its head of a “mammy” figure, invoking the archetype of the asexual, nurturing African-American woman that was an essential component of the larger mythos of Southern slavery and racism.* It also, both by being made of sugar and being installed in a sugar factory, alluded indirectly to the use of chattel slave labor on sugar plantations in the Caribbean in conditions that might be the worst things I’ve ever read about (slavery in all of the Western hemisphere areas was awful, but on sugar plantations the standard operating procedure was essentially to work people to death in a few years and then replace them).
*Maybe the single weirdest thing I learned in grad school was that in 1923 a North Carolina congressman named Charles Stedman tried to get a statue honoring the mammies of the American South erected in Washington DC.
So A Subtlety was evoking a lot of things just be existing. It also, through its sheer size, allowed for an element of interactivity that was revealing. The installation was heavily covered in news media, and people lined up to see it. Most people came into the factory, saw the statue, caught some resonances, had some thoughts, and left; but social media also filled up with images of people, pretty much always white people, usually young white men, posing so that their hands appeared to be fondling the statue’s breasts, or grabbing its ass, or, well, you get the picture.
Don’t be this guy. For the love of god, don’t ever be this guy.
And I’m 100% confident that Walker knew this would happen, and that it was part of her larger point: that crass, racist shitheadery is still very much with us, and that with some people, if you give them a chance to show their ass in public, they’re going to take it. Like everything else Walker’s trying to tell us, that’s information that can be tough to accept, but it’s absolutely vital that we do.
Right on. Be safe.
A couple of issues ago, I mentioned that we’d rewatched The Favourite and that it really held up; since then, we’ve also gone through the first season of The Great, a treatment of Catherine the Great by some of the same creative team on Hulu. It’s fantastic, and much more interested in conveying the tone of a historical period than the facts, which is a useful approach. And actually, The Great often employs some Kara Walker-esque techniques to shoot ideas past your normal mental filters.
This Twitter thread is a good compilation of pictures and art about El Negro Matapacos, the Chilean riot dog famous for loving protestors and hating cops:
Two hours of Neil Young live in 1978 (with roadies dressed as Jawas) might not be your thing; but for some of you, it has to be very much your thing, and for those people, here you go.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
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