By Haillie Hadar
I was first introduced to the works of Kara Walker in the fall of 2007 at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York’s Upper East Side. Prior to attending this exhibition, I had no acquaintance with the artist. Kara Walker was born in Stockton, California (1969). When she was 13, her family relocated to Stockton, Georgia – the city where the KKK was born. The exhibition was entitled Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love (Fig 1). The specific installation My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love was a panoramic narrative that contained life size shadows that were made out of cut out paper, also known as silhouettes; a 17th Century art form that was used for portraiture.
Many of the characters in the work were presented quite elegantly – whether it was the way they were dressed or through their body language – yet the characters were frozen in questionable positions. Some of them were obviously nude. I had to tilt my head from time to time to actually identify what these characters were doing. Some of the characters were inserting things into their anuses or had excrement come out of their anuses. The sexual content of the installation was overwhelming, to say the least. On the left included a carnivalesque piece in which one of the characters was inserting its foot into the anus of the other character which was positioned upside down – doing a headstand, which seemed to be in a very uncomfortable manner – the character on the top seemed to be releasing fluid from various parts of their body which included the chest, the mouth, and even the armpits. The characters turned into objects, like a water fountain statue; other characters stood alone in the outskirts; while other characters were thrown in midair, while others are about to be penetrated; while others seem to be put to work with infants on their backs; the installation included children dancing and injecting objects in their mouths; while other images contained grass-hooks used in times of slave plantations.
The silhouettes themselves were shadows swallowed by the gallery walls. Walker is knowingly submitting the audience to slave trauma narrative – and to be exact: her own traumatic narrative. Due to the fact we become witnesses in her trauma – we then become accessories to such trauma and must come to understand not only the history of said trauma, but Walker’s own testimony. The sexual content of the work comes from slave horror tales that examine the exploitation of black bodies during slavery – whether it is referred to the breasts – which were used to nurse European-American infants – or whether Walker is referring to the rapes by slave owners. The sexual subject of the work is crucial to understanding the relationship between abuse and control of black bodies. In a way, Walker is appropriating sexuality as a satirical enterprise – her use of gruesome images become less violent due to their comical nature. The wall panorama contains shocking and unspeakable images that contain both historical and imaginative elements. The disturbing images may cause the audience to misunderstand or misconstrue exactly what it is they're seeing. Our society is accustomed to seeing violent and violating images – especially sexual – but one cannot imagine it to be reality. We're usually protected by the frame, such as a television, which disassociates us as true witnesses to the crimes and violence committed. Walker therefore plays on this trauma by forcing us into the frame.
The work contained “specific and sophisticated references to the history of the antebellum and to nineteenth century American visual culture.” The title My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love also suggests the complicated relationship between abuser and abused as well as this juxtaposition between power, control, hate, and comfortability pertaining an abusive relationship. The abuser becomes acclimated to such abuse and projects it as sense of normalcy – the same way a person who is kidnapped adapts to their kidnapper – and something strange happens to the mind of the victim. Walker is greatly influenced by the Antebellum American South; as well as the nostalgia to gothic literature and slave narratives; the scenes depicting the breasts can be referenced to the traumatic story of Beloved by Toni Morrison.
Standing there at the time, I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. I was disturbed. And yet at the same time I couldn’t help but laugh a little bit. Was it because these images were so atrocious and unspeakable? I was immediately intrigued and repulsed all at the same time. The installation contained paradoxically light and darkness, but was so extravagant, gruesome, violent, whimsical, and even comical, that it contained all the colors in the world with no colors at all. It illustrated both the ugliness in the world and the beauty all in the same time, but most of all, it contained subject matter that was to be taken very seriously. The beauty in the work comes from its power to break the foundations of historicity as its been told to us. Walker cracks open the abyss of history and tackles our comprehension of slave narrative, trauma, and testimony. The work was loud, even though the art form itself is minimal. It collapsed the silence around blackness, race, and slavery. Growing up in New York – race – particularly blackness, black history, and slavery were subject matter that elementary, middle, and high school educators spent an abundance of time discussing. Both History and English classes gave room for black writers and black history. We even have a black history month in the United States. But never before have I felt slavery more alive and more outspoken than in this particular space, and at the same time, I was confused; and perhaps this confusion gave birth to an admiration and curiosity.
Was it because I couldn’t imagine something like this happening to humans? Was it because I couldn’t make out what the trauma, I was being subjected to, was doing to me? I’m not sure, but I wondered how these perfectly cut out characters could be doing such terrible things; and could it be that I myself, was in a way projecting my own biography onto these characters? These are life size images that require one to become a witness in this space – and therefore I was made to re-live the testimony of Walker’s generational slavery and relationship to race and slavery. I became convinced that Kara Walker’s work is speaking about her own trauma and a history that, in Dori Laub’s words, does not end. I was convinced that not only was she speaking about the history of the antebellum south, using the art form of the silhouette, and gothic literature, that she was creating an extremely complicated critique on race, stereotypes, and trauma.
Fig 1. Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.