Kara Walker's current exhibit in the Nasher's Incubator Gallery is called Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated). The parenthetical term is used somewhat ironically. Usually, such explanatory notes occupy the margins of a document or added pages in the back. But Walker's graphic annotations overtake the illustrations they accompany, all but eclipsing them at times.
"They're the subjects that have been left out of the frames, but now they're almost the only thing you can see," says Thomas F. DeFrantz, who chairs Duke's African and African-American studies department. He's also the artistic director of the performance company SLIPPAGE, which this week presents a new dance and technology work, reVERSE–gesture–reVIEWed, at the Nasher. It interacts with Walker's projected images, reflecting and engaging their pointed commentaries.
"Like Walker, we're concerned with things that are hidden, then exposed, things that are impossible to hear but then so loud you can't miss them," DeFrantz says. Because black bodies are often viewed as either athletically exemplary or grotesque in the cultural imagination, reVERSE also focuses on "appendages that amplify the body, that make the black body strange."
- Photo courtesy of Thomas DeFrantz
- SLIPPAGE: reVERSE–gesture–reVIEWed
In her exhibit, Walker superimposes outsize, distorted, often nude silhouettes on fifteen enlarged line illustrations from the 826-page chronicle of the Civil War that Harper's Magazine published in 1866. In one picture, a cannon in the original drawing blows apart a giant woman, the dark outlines of her torn, flying body parts dwarfing the soldiers below. In another, the shape of a man with an exaggerated rear end holds a boxing-gloved fist aloft, preparing to smite the figure of a much smaller pugilist that was also added to the original illustration.
Walker has been confronting audiences with such provocations for two decades. Her 1994 wall installation, Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b'tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, used the eighteenth-century French decorative technique of cut-paper silhouettes to depict scenes of rape, lynching, and dismemberment of African-American men, women, and children by smiling masters.
The incendiary fifty-foot installation galvanized critics and thrust Walker to the forefront of contemporary art. Her work, in New Yorker critic Hilton Als's view, saw American racial relations as "a freak show that is impossible to watch, let alone understand. ... Slavery is a nightmare from which no American has yet awakened: bondage, ownership, the selling of bodies for power and cash have made twisted figures of blacks and whites alike."
In 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker, a 2005 film in which Walker animated her silhouettes as shadow puppets, a black slave is sodomized by King Cotton, depicted as a scrawny white master. (It was recently on view in Southern Accent at the Nasher.) In 2014's A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby, Walker fashioned a three-story statue of a nude black woman in a Sphinx-like pose out of eighty tons of sugar. In both works, critic Steven Litt noted, her art "magnified racist antebellum stereotypes as a way to lash out at them."
DeFrantz believes that Walker reveals what's behind or underneath the original illustrations. "She wants to provoke us to reconsider and recalculate how we see this imagery and how we remember these events," he says. Historical records often push the people the Civil War was fought over to what DeFrantz calls "the corner of the story, the edges of the room." Walker's work reframes them in the center of our visual field. "Silhouettes are reductions, and racial stereotypes are also reductions of actual human beings," she said in a 2014 PBS interview. Each "says a lot with very little information."
DeFrantz concludes that the most important thing Walker's work does, by disrupting our sense of historical and current tropes about race, is to make us feel awkward. "Awkwardness is about rupture and failure," he says. "As we go through a day, or a gallery, walk down a street or engage in a dance, we have expectations of what those things feel like." But in the awkward moment, "something else happens, the encounter is failing and something is being revealed."
He was also drawn in by the enigma of the silhouette itself. "It can't be a full person," he says. "It has no features; it's only the outline of a person." Ralph Ellison also pursued this idea of being a shadow, a fugitive who is always in motion, in Invisible Man.
"These are difficult times to work with ideas of African-American history, black bodies in motion, and especially the futures of black people in our performances," DeFrantz says. "But the awkwardness can help us all imagine this contemporary moment differently, how we recognize each other across difference and imagine the place of black bodies in the contemporary landscape."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Take the Shadow for the Substance."