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>> Man in the Middle - "In Fantastic Company"
>> The Ironic Masquerades of Kara Walker


Blasphemous Images.
The Ironic Masquerades of Kara Walker. By Karsten Kredel

 from: The Emancipation Approximation, 1999-2000

Could there be a reason for an insulted person to adopt into his own vocabulary the words that have come into existence for the sole purpose of degrading him? His interest, his curiosity, his desire do they signal agreement? Do they even make him the offender's accomplice, setting him up against those who have been put in "their place" by means of those hurtful words?

Kara Walker's large silhouettes (exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin) are populated by the very characters white America devised as representations of those who had been shipped from Africa into slavery images that rendered black Americans invisible by prescribing the norms of perception for generations to come, allowing Americans of European descent to deny their black fellow men basic human rights and still feel themselves to be in accordance with the Enlightenment ideals of citizenship. Although those images stylized portrayals of good-natured mammies, obsequious but sly sambos and rebellious coons, of pickaninnies and nigger wenches were simply negating the humanity of those supposedly portrayed, they each nonetheless make their appearance in Walker's silhouette dramas: in degrading positions and involved in drastic scenes of sex and violence; humiliated or humiliating others, or watching humiliating acts as, so it seems, consenting bystanders. We recognize them by their precise, emblematic outlines; the artist can rely upon our racist knowledge.

Kara Walker belongs to a number of younger African American artists who work with the archives of racist imagery (german reviews of the exhibition). She does not, however, liberate her black characters from the epic of the archetypes; she is not interested in deconstructing and rewriting history. Instead, she returns to the stages of the racist imagination in the slave-holding American South and redirects the old dramas, making them suitable to her own artistic interests. Does she empower the black characters? She equips them with a certain freedom of action, even with pleasure; in doing that, however, she deliberately stays in line with racist norms of stereotypical portrayal. She also introduces white characters to her world of silhouettes. They all inflict violence upon each other, but are united in a sexualized whirl of stereotypes.

Walker dares to wed the autobiographical accounts of slave narratives to the racist fantasies of white supremacists. For many African Americans, this amounts to an outrage, a slap in the face; her art has met with much anger. Consequently, there have been ongoing and controversial debates about it ever since it was first exhibited in the early nineties. The artist Betye Saar assailed Walker for playing into the hands of white racists instead of criticizing racism. In her most popular piece "The Liberation of Aunt Jemima," Saar herself has dealt with racist iconography in a deliberately emancipatory fashion.

 untitled, 1994 - 1995

Artist and author Howardena Pindell ascribes the enthusiastic responses of white critics to Walker's reinforcement of negative stereotypes of black people; she also describes the art scene as a "disguised neo-colonial" arena where African American artists who create positive portrayals of black people are condemned to obscurity. Walker, according to her critics, defames and mocks the memory of slaves; they think of her work as the revival of the minstrel show, in which white America entertained itself, mocking its "niggers," who were so very much like badly-behaved children.

And what could possibly justify the conscious inheritance of such a tradition?

Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Racial Order

White men (very few of the performers were female) blackened their faces with burnt cork to act and sing in "comical" sketches of "black life." Their audience consisted of white men, women, and children, the majority of them coming from the lower classes. Much more than just a marginal sideshow attraction, blackface minstrelsy (more here) marked the beginning of the American entertainment industry (it was also the first of America's pop cultural exports). Decades later, its spirit resided in the movie cameras even before they first began to whir. One of the earliest feature films was "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1903), produced with a cast of white actors in blackface. "The Jazz Singer" (1927), which introduced sound to the big screen, is about a blackface performer who in the end, realizing his true self as a white man, no longer requires the mask.

The blackface performance is a practice of racial demarcation: the surface masquerade affirms the "racial truth" that lies behind it. Or rather, it creates that truth. D. W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), widely recognized as one of the groundbreaking works in the history of film, is a drama about white women whose sexual and racial purity is threatened by black villains played by white actors in blackface, complete with a happy ending in which white men restore the "natural" order by force. Minstrelsy's expression of racial contempt was ambivalent, betraying, as it did, fundamental fears of blurring racial boundaries as well as a secret desire to transgress that very line.

More than just an occasion for ridiculing blacks, it allowed white America to invent itself by creating archetypical images of blackness. Put on a black mask, take it off, have a good laugh, and, in sharp contrast, reveal the essential truth. The birth of a white nation.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the decline of the Southern plantation system was inescapably underway.

 Stone Mountain, Georgia, 2001

Blackface minstrelsy contained a powerful message of reassurance in a moment of crisis: a historically outdated order collapsed, to be resurrected as a nostalgic ideal. It is this carousel, frozen in mid-movement as if under a spell, that Kara Walker sets back in motion. The protagonists start moving, leaving the position prescribed to them by contemporary white and black orthodoxies to engage in the outrageous, perverse intimacy that the minstrel show both negated and revealed.

The Burden of Representation

For centuries, the African American struggle for freedom was tantamount to demanding equal status as human beings and inclusion in the all-American pursuit of happiness. This appeal to the Enlightenment's humanistic ideals was never without irony, since Africans, in the Enlightenment's celebration of the individual, more often than not were relegated to the lower ranks of humanity, if not excluded altogether. Among the men who signed the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, which announced that "all men are created equal," were slave owners. In 1772, Phillis Wheatley, poet and slave, was called before a committee of Boston honorary citizens to prove that she was indeed the author of her writings; according to the science of the day, Africans possessed no creative capacities. In 1955, a brave woman named Rosa Parks jump-started the Civil Rights Movement by claiming the right to take any seat in a public bus, race notwithstanding. Still, up until November 2000, the state of Alabama, home to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, had a law prohibiting interracial marriages.

Slave narratives were not only descriptions of the gruesome realities of slavery; they also provided the means by which the authors invented themselves as free men, claiming authorship for their lives, as well. They were literally writing their autonomy, which, by definition, no slave could ever possess. The paradigmatic slave narrative was authored by Frederick Douglass, who had escaped into freedom and, following Emancipation, became the spokesman for all black Americans - the first in a long succession of public intellectuals. Not surprisingly, it was also Douglass (here his autobiography) who first formulated the classic critique of the spectacle of minstrelsy, as it was most recently taken up by Spike Lee (in his film "Bamboozled"): it is a misrepresentation of black people and an act of cultural exploitation.

If the minstrel show entailed a misrepresentation of black people, this meant that he, Frederick Douglass, was also included. Just as he, Phillis Wheatley, and countless others had demonstrated their humanity on behalf of all black people, the dehumanizing insult of the minstrel show was, in turn, always a personal one. Lawyer or sharecropper - no matter how far you'd made it in America, you were still, first and foremost, black. One word alone - "nigger" - had the power to put an individual in his or her "racial place."

 from: The Emancipation Approximation, 1999-2000

Later, in a segregated America that denied black citizens access to its institutions, the "first ones" - the first black Ph.D., the first black mayor, the first black Wimbledon champion - were always regarded as representatives of their "race," by whites as well as by blacks. In his role as investigator in a racist hick town in the South, Sidney Poitier claimed respect not only for his character, but for every black American who had to face racism throughout the country ("In the Heat of the Night"). The performance of the individual reflected upon the whole "race." In the face of this burden of representation and the resulting dictate of "positive images," artists such as Kara Walker take individual liberties - the liberty, for example, to exploit negative images for satirical purposes. The slave narrative aimed to correct the racist fantasies of the minstrel show; Kara Walker feels free to merge the two.

 Cleanser, 2001

all pictures: © Courtesy Brent Sikkema

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