Review – Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power

schurThe Springfield Art Museum is hosting the penultimate stop of an important traveling exhibit “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power.” It is rare for Springfield to host a significant exhibit by a major African American artist, so it is well worth the trip to the museum for the show. While Walker’s art is largely concerned with historical subject matter, this does not mean it lacks relevance to contemporary racial controversies. Walker’s art reveals how racialized imagery is rooted in the violence and sexual perversity slavery authorized and how this same imagery may affect our contemporary world.

Walker won a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 1997. While the art world immediately acknowledged the power of her work, Betye Saar, along with African American artist from the Black Arts era of the 1960s and 1970s, publically criticized Walker’s work for dredging up racial stereotypes and questioned why art galleries and museums seemed more interested in Walker’s work than African American art that was either more overtly political or emphasize African and African American aesthetics. For Saar, Walker seemed to be given art museums and curators license to display racist imagery, under the labels of postmodernism and irony. The debate between Saar and Walker revealed a generational conflict of sorts within the African American art community as the older generation wanted a more clearly political form of African American art, while younger artists wanted the freedom to explore the power of racialized imagery. Walker helped open the door to other African American artists, such as Michael Ray Charles and Kehinde Wiley.

As a note of warning, this is not an art exhibit for children. Nor is it an exhibit for viewers seeking images of Black respectability from the Harlem Renaissance or the political activism of the Black Arts Movement. It shares the ironic perspective of post-modern art and draws from iconoclastic African American artists, such as Robert Colescott, David Hammons, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and museum artist, Fred Wilson. Walker seeks to shock her viewers into realizing, in Adrian Piper’s words, that racism is a “visual pathology”.


Walker’s early work, in the exhibit’s first room, is particularly arresting, as the black and white silhouettes seem beautiful and delicate. Only after a careful and sustained viewing, however, is the horror of the images – and the American experience of slavery – truly revealed. Hidden with the work are decapitated heads, erect penises, racist caricatures, bestiality, anachronistic word choices, and tasteless puns about slavery and lynching.

Walker’s work possesses a nightmare quality to it, more effectively communicating the horror of slavery and racism than more realistic works. The work functions like a nightmare in another way because it suggests the perversity of our racial and sexual desires. As described in Jessi Di Tillio’s informative and insightful essay in the exhibition program, Walker’s “works evoke a sense of nightmares past, and reflect the way old traumas reverberate through the generations” (5). The signage throughout the exhibit frequently explains the imagery, and I would encourage viewers to take the time to read through them. I would also strongly recommend that viewers watch the video in the first room that shows how Walker creates and constructs her silhouettes.


The second and third rooms offer more recent examples of Walker’s work. The print portfolio Emancipation Approximation, goes beyond the black and white imagery of Walker’s earlier work and uses swans as a sexualized image, following the practice of earlier generations of artists. She reproduces civil war era wood cuts and augments them with her own silhouette cuts to explore what is missing or hidden in the original images in Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War: Annotated. There are also stills from her film, Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions. This more recent work draws on and moves forward her aesthetic in an incremental way and suggests an artist who is still experimenting with methods and materials. While I didn’t enjoy this later work as much as the earlier pieces, I do find that the chronological organization does allow visitors to gain a good sense of Kara Walker’s development as an artist.


I strongly recommend visiting this exhibit while it is here. The exhibit, however, is not perfect. While her work is ground-breaking and original, it nonetheless has been in conversation with the tradition of African American art. Walker is breaking from and criticizing both the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930 sand the Black Art Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Walker is also an important like to popular contemporary African American artists, such as Allison Saar, Michael Ray Charles, Glenn Ligon, and Kehinde Wiley. I believe that identifying these artistic conversations between the generations helps humanize artists and allows us to better understand the creative process. The exhibit inadvertently suggests that Walker is an isolated genius.

The Springfield Art Museum should be applauded for hosting this exhibit. It brings important artwork to the city and can help generate dialogue (in a region that sorely need it) about how racial imagery continues to function in American culture and affect the lives of African Americans.


Rich Schur is Professor of English and Director of Drury Honors Program at Drury University.