When A Trumpet Sounds: Kara Walker, Examining Root Causes With Pencil and Paper

Kara Walker – Untitled, 1995. Ink and charcoal on paper. 
Suite of 14 works, 24 x 18 inches (61 x 45.7 cm) each courtesy Sikemma Jenkins & Co.

Kara Walker. 1995. Look Away! Look Away! Look Away! / The Battle of Atlanta, Being the Narrative of a Negress in the Flames of Desire / The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven. Sculpture and Installations. https://0-library-artstor-org.library.scad.edu/asset/LARRY_QUALLS_10310855292.

In Kara Walker’s Study for The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (1995), she uses the relationships between master, slave, and the slave master’s wife to explore sexuality, race, and gender amidst the backdrop of America’s peculiar institution. In the untitled sketch, created in ink and charcoal, Walker presents what we can only presume to be the very beginnings of one of the many drawings that would later evolve into the silhouettes that made her famous. Walker’s work was heavily influenced by the racism she experienced as a child moving from California to Atlanta. Also, it was influenced by her reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin[1].

The sketch is an important reference to problems that plague race relations in America today. The fetishization of black female sexuality, the ordained purity of white womanhood, and white male dominance.

In the sketch, we see a woman praying. We can assume that she is a wife who is both beautiful and pious. She is doing what any wife in the antebellum south would do when they are suspicious of the whereabouts of their husband and sexual prowess of his mistress.  Yet in this drawing, the object of affection is a child and the man old, white, and probably pious himself. There is a smile on the girls face that says that suggests her complicit nature and even enjoyment of the event about to take place. She feels that her role is just as important I not more than the wife’s. Nothing in the image suggests anything that is beloved even if it appears to be. That is what makes it unnerving.

In the Cult of True Womanhood 1860-1865 scholar, Barbara Weller writes,” a true woman was a true woman, wherever she was found. If anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex of virtues which made up True Womanhood, he was damned immediately as an enemy of God, of civilization and of the Republic. It was a fearful obligation, a solemn responsibility, which the nineteenth-century American woman had-to uphold the pillars of the temple with her frail white hand.[2]

In today’s discourse this scene would look a lot like sex trafficking. However, this is a very real event that, at face value, tore apart established families. It harmed the psyche of an oppressed people and created many fatherless families. 

Although Walker’s motivations stemmed from the racism that she experienced as a child. She was underwent protests for her work from black artists. One artist in particular, Betye Saars, was very vocal. In the International Review of American Art she called out Walker’s work as being opportunist with a goal of being famous. Saars stated, “The trend today is to be as nasty as you want to be. There is no personal integrity.”[3]

The New York Times had a similar view calling Walker’s art “Shock Art.”[4]

However, in the picture sketched above Walker seems to have a true connection to her ancestry and the ability to explore the psychological landscape of slavery and its repercussions.

The girl with her master has no idea what is love or not love. She more than likely has not known anything other than what she has experienced. She plays a role. The wife plays the role she is cast in. She is to be idyllic. What culture tells her to be she knows no different. They are both victims of the peculiar institution desirous of freedom.

 In this picture, Walker leaves us wondering who is the woman crying for? We are privy to the vision of her prayer however, it is not clear if the tears are for herself, the girl, or the situation. There is an insight into Walker’s perception of suffering. This is a love triangle amidst the horrors of slavery.

Walker’s work is the very definition of identity politics. She repeatedly gives voice to the souls of black folk all laid bare on her canvas. If Kanye West thought that slavery was a “choice” he clearly has never experienced work by Kara Walker.

Walker’s work is messy, revealing, exaggerated and difficult to digest. It gives the work a surreal feeling because it is matter of fact. Yet, on any given day she shows us what happened. What happens and how turn a blind eye each day to our “normal.” If confession of sin is the gateway to freedom, we must be able to look closer at each character in the sketch to see their humanity and create an understanding I believe Kara Walker is aiming for.

[1]  Rebecca Peabody (2012) Kara Walker, on The End of Uncle Tom, Word & Image, 28:2, 181-192, DOI: 10.1080/02666286.2012.677622

[2] The Cult of True Womanhood 1860-1865,  Barbara Weller, This content downloaded from 132.174.254.81 on Sat, 02 May 2020 22:00:50 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/term 

[3] Abusive, Cartoonish, Obscene:How Kara Walker Painted Trump’s America. Retrievedn2 May 2020 https://www.huffpost.com/entry/kara-walker-trump-art_n_59b2d120e4b0dfaafcf7d240

[4] Julia Szabo, (1997) ‘Kara Walker’s Shock Art’ The New York Times retrieved  2 May 2020 https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1997/03/23/074535.html?pageNumber=357

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima Revisited

Being a black woman in the world is a multi-dimensional experience. However, the variance and diversity is what is so enticing. There are many contributing factors that shape our experiences and we come to embrace the notion that we are not a monolith. However, it is the color of our skin that can determine how we are viewed in the world. That is the unifying experience.

When Betye Saar was assembling this piece, she mentioned that it was a quiet protest. When you look at this piece does it speak loudly or softly to you?

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972. Wood, Mixed-media assemblage, 11.75 x 8 x 2.75 in.

Betye Saar

African American assemblage artist Betye Saar often used stereotypical and derogatory images such as the black female image of the “Mammy” to invoke symbols of empowerment and positivity. Many people see the image of mammy and it stirs up the ugly and uncomfortable parts of American History, black female sexuality, and its pervasive depictions in art, media and culture.  The conversation surrounding black female sexuality often presents the black woman in an oversexualized state such as the Venus Hotentot, or in an asexual one, like the contented Mammy image. However, in the “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” one of Saar’s most famous works; mammy is juxtaposed against a smiling Aunt Jemima in a way that feels eerily co-conspiratorial between the two generational versions of the same woman. These images are uncomfortable to look at.

The Image of Mammy

Mammy is known to be the kind, loving and devoted mother figure who is happy in all of her roles of suffering. However, Saar’s work shows us a deeper laugh this is ultimately on an American society that has strived to strip black women of their agency and turn them into hidden figures. The mammy is a caretaker, a domestic, but the gun yells for your attention. Listen up! Look at us! The rising of the black fist up from the balls of cotton, can be seen as a call to action for mobilization and empowerment. The compelling visual of the discontented white baby captured in the womb of the ultimate mother, mammy, speaks volumes to the constructs that make up the foundation of our society. From the womb relationships are formed and mammy is the birth mother of the nation in the traditional American south.

In an interview with the Visionary Project regarding the Liberation of Aunt Jemima Saar states,” I wanted to do a work about a woman to make my protest feelings heard through this piece.”[1]

            I believe that Saars achieves her goal of protest for women of color, and of women that seek to be free of the hegemony that has suppressed their womanhood for centuries. Her work was very important in challenging images that define black culture and womanhood. Visiting Lecturer to the Savannah College of Art and Design, Catherine Morris, also felt that Saars’ work was an important part of feminist art history, and included her work in the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition: “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-85.”  In answering the important questions facing black female artists at the time Morris states “The question was, do you align yourselves with the black power movement and deal with sexism in that context? Do you align yourself with feminism and deal with racism in that context? There is always a battle to be fought.”[2]

True to the battle being fought, we can look at the image of both Mammy and Aunt Jemima to know that not much has changed.

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[2] Miranda, Carolina. “How the black radical female artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s made art that speaks to today’s politics,” Los Angeles Times, 2017. Accessed 28 April 2020 https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-black-radical-women-caam-20171228-htmlstory.html

[1] VisionaryProject “Betye Saar: The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” Filmed March 2010. Youtube video 5:30. Posted March 2010. Accessed 28 April 2020. https://youtu.be/MvJvyFBcvD4

[2] Miranda, Carolina.How the black radical female artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s made art that speaks to today’s politics,” Los Angeles Times, 2017. Accessed 28 April 2020 https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-black-radical-women-caam-20171228-htmlstory.html