Standing in the Shadow of the Silhouette Figure

Renee Cox put herself at the center of
Renee Cox put herself at the center of "Liberation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben," featured in "She's So Articulate" at Arlington Arts Center. (Courtesy Of The Artist)
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By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 20, 2008

You remember Kara Walker, whose stark cut-paper silhouettes show unflinching scenes of slavery and racism. The African American artist, recipient of a 1997 MacArthur genius grant at age 27 and subject of a major touring exhibition organized last year by the Walker Art Center, has enjoyed unprecedented success since her 1994 New York debut.

Now, those same achievements have earned her a new label: oppressor.

Anxieties about Walker's star power fuel the Arlington Arts Center's recently opened group show "She's So Articulate." Uncomfortable with the artist's lock on the museum circuit, Washington collector Henry Thaggert, the show's guest curator, selected eleven African American women artists -- 11 not-Kara-Walkers -- whom Thaggert believes operate in Walker's shadow.

What worries people about Walker is the imagined narrative her cutouts depict. Plantation life as Walker envisions it includes African Americans with exaggerated breasts and their buttocks. They're slaves who are often raped by their masters. Ever since art world elder Betye Saar -- a black woman -- penned protests accusing Walker of propagating negative stereotypes, Walker has polarized the black community.

While Thaggert isn't nearly as strident as Saar, he is certainly ambivalent. In an essay written for the show's small catalogue, Thaggert comes off as an admirer who nevertheless addresses Walker in language generally reserved for revisionist histories of Powerful White Men. According to Thaggert, Walker "owns the black narrative," and his exhibition marks "an attempt to reclaim the narrative" from her.

Yet not all the works on view flatter blacks. Thaggert included Renee Cox, an artist who came under fire in 2001 for reimagining Leonardo's "The Last Supper" with her naked self playing Jesus. Here, a picture called "Liberation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben" finds the very buff Cox dressed in superhero garb of the Wonder Woman variety -- that is, maximally revealing -- escorting revised figures of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. In Cox's telling, Jemima morphs into a wasp-waisted glamazon sporting a vinyl bikini, and Ben becomes a stud in briefs.

Though envisioned as superheroes rather than servants, the figures nonetheless invite objectification of another kind -- now for their killer bodies if not their skin color.

Artist lauren woods paints an equally complicated picture of the first black Miss Texas, crowned in 2006. The artist stretches out a minute's worth of video documenting the countdown to coronation in agonizing slow-motion. She replaces the television announcer's voice with the anticipatory soundtrack of a slasher film. As the seconds pass, we see the two finalists -- the blonde and the black -- clasp hands like a bride and groom, and we watch the black woman rebuff her rival's nervous kiss. When the winner is announced, the array of also-rans standing behind the pair betray a sense of horror -- or so woods beautifully lets us assume -- at the white woman's loss.

Other voices in "She's So Articulate" -- the title itself is a pun on an old dis, as if it's surprising when blacks speak proper English -- are resolutely positive. Godmother of feminism Faith Ringgold is here. Rarely controversial within feminist and African American communities, Ringgold matters to this show for her politics, which are less complicated than Walker's. (In case you're wondering, she offers a quilt and canvas depiction of "Bad"-era Michael Jackson).

Some works sidestep race altogether. Those include an appealing series of wall-hung prints by area artist Nekisha Durrett. Her riffs on animation -- both Disney and Japanese -- could withstand a race-based reading but hardly demand it.

Likewise, Torkwase Dyson's scenes patched together with gaudy stuff found in down-market stores -- plastic jewelry display cards, sequined decals for sweat shirts -- could have been designed to make strident comments on disposable goods. Instead, Dyson uses unorthodox materials to create imagined worlds where octopuses and polar bears frolic, worlds divorced from the meaning her materials carry. The result complicates the reading of her work in a very good way.

Indeed, the sum of "She's So Articulate" complicates -- in a interesting way -- a post-Kara Walker art world. And if a black woman artist wields enough influence to spawn a show, then I'd call that a victory.

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