Nostalgia is an intensely prickly concept for black Americans. To remember a past fraught with slavery and genocide can lead to a hateful or, at the very least, cynical point of view. However the litany of survival is a testament to another possibility: heroism, against all odds. This type of nostalgia is perhaps equally limiting, rife as it is with denial and contradiction.
The absurd gulf between these disparate attitudes is a story in its own right, and Kara Walker’s recent solo exhibition at Wooster Gardens is this story. Black paper is meticulously cut and affixed to white wall, producing an effect reminiscent of cameos yet also of drawings that might have illustrated 19th-century adventure novels. Walker’s study focuses on Southern plantation iconography: pickaninnies clash with slave masters yet both are locked in combat with the environment; a tree seems as involved in a lynching as the human combatants.
One cannot recall a violent past without some type of sexual domination. Recent African-American cultural production that deals with these same themes can be extremely traditional. In literature, for example, Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters (1980), Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow (1983) or Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) all explore nostalgia while surfing the chasm between denial and the heroic. These writers came of age between the 50s and the 70s, a time when constructions of black identity were much more rigid.
Born in 1969, Walker comes from a generation that questions those constructions and the heroic identity in general. A spate of recent first novels, including Darius James’ Negrophobia (1992), poet Sapphire’s novel Push (1996) and at least the first 20 pages of poet Paul Beatty’s novel The White Boy Shuffle (1996) delight in the absurd, using a facetious nostalgia to present a history that seems to point to a truth that is as real as it is surreal. Sapphire and Beatty are two sides of same coin, one revelling in anger and the other in humour, but both are trapped in the dilemma of African-American nostalgia. Is the Africanistic state a conjecture of society's cruelty or a testimony to some Herculean inner strength? James especially shares an affinity with Walker by turning his Alice in Negroland tale into a proto-pornographic odyssey. In Walker’s work, a Sadean consciousness envelops all of the interaction: a Confederate soldier gives it to a horse in the rear; in a drawing, a possum burrows into the vagina of a woman who seems less horrified than perplexed.
While fascination, horror and apprehension engulf the viewer of Walker’s work, once those hurdles are cleared a discordant sense of formality and process takes over. The medium of paper initially brings Matisse to mind, but Walker’s approach to colour and essentialist use of figuration suggest other influences. Unlike artists heavily indebted to Postmodern theory, Walker is not rewriting history but remembering it through fantasy, embracing all the subjectivity which that endeavour can conjure.
In addition to the cut-outs, drawings and murals, Walker has created a pair of mobile wall sculptures. Fabricated from the same black paper along with metal fasteners and common string, the viewer is invited to pull the string and set the figures in motion, robotically fucking along the wall. Being a notoriously inert bunch, very few gallery goers engaged in even this crude level of interactivity. What an eerie metaphor for the immutability of time: the privileged viewer gasping in horror at the cruelty of what is envisioned without acknowledging a level of complicity. Go ahead. Pull.