One of the things I enjoy most about going to a show by the artist Kara Walker is looking at other visitors as they look at her art. At most exhibitions, there wouldn’t be much more to gain from this practice than the routine joys of people-watching. But with Walker’s work, part of the fun is seeing other people discover exactly what they’ve gotten into. When I visited her most recent show at the Sikkema Jenkins & Co. gallery in Manhattan in September, I had one of those moments while sneaking a glimpse at a pair of women trying to orient themselves to the first piece on display, which is sexually explicit even by Walker’s standards. Presumably they had sought out the show because they had some sense of what they were going to see. But even so, they didn’t expect that.
Walker knows exactly what she’s doing, which is why a statement that appears outside the door tweaks every possible category of person who might end up walking through it.
“Scholars will study and debate the Historical Value and Intellectual Merits of Miss Walker’s Diversionary Tactics,” she declares. “Art Historians will wonder whether the work represents a Departure or a Continuum. Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media. Parents will cover the eyes of innocent children. School Teachers will reexamine their art history curricula. Prestigious Academic Societies will withdraw their support, former husbands and former lovers will recoil in abject terror. Critics will shake their heads in bemused silence. Gallery Directors will wring their hands at the sight of throngs of the gallery-curious flooding the pavement outside. The Final President of the United States will visibly wince. Empires will fall, although which ones, only time will tell. ”
Then, of course, she goes on to say that she’s exhausted by trying to explain herself: “I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point.”
So rather than try to dissect Walker’s show to uncover some hidden meaning when her ideas about the way American racism manifests through both sex and violence are obvious, I want to write about what her show meant to me.
The works in the exhibition were completed in 2017, during the first year of Donald Trump’s administration and, more broadly and relevantly, during a year when it feels as if the specters of the past are coming back and coming after us. I hope I wasn’t foolish enough to believe that Confederate apologists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists were gone from the earth for good, but it has been horrifying to see them scuttle out from the rocks where they normally linger to instead bask in sunlight — or the glow of tiki torches, at least.
So it feels fitting that a recurring motif in Walker’s show is graves dug but not filled and bodies that haven’t been properly interred. In “U.S.A. Idioms,” a little black girl is either tying up or undoing the bandages over the eyes of a grievously wounded white man next to a hole in the dirt. In “The (Private) Memorial Garden of Grandison Harris,” a black man drags the body of a black woman away from the grave; Grandison Harris was a so-called resurrection man and slave who stole bodies for the students at the Medical College of Georgia to dissect. “Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit)” suggests that no matter how much you exhume, there’s always something else dead floating up from the fathoms. In other works, bodies are hooked, throats are slit, people are tied to stakes on the ground and disemboweled or whipped, women are branded, children are impaled, and decapitated heads are held up like trophies and displayed on platters.
This is a vision of the world that is endlessly violent — one act always follows another, and it’s not clear whether any individual’s torment ever ends. “Alive Not Dead” is the title of a piece that depicts a child impaled on a branch. It’s Dante’s “Inferno” as American history, but without the reassurance that the punishment has been cleverly tailored to any actual crime. One piece is even called “Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something).”
But for all Walker’s work is damning, it’s not completely grim, which is the other great power of her work: She’s very good at getting you to laugh in surprise or smile at something that makes you feel uncomfortable. I was startled and then darkly delighted to see Trayvon Martin as the beheaded St. John the Baptist and to witness Walker’s riff on the death of Sardanapalus, the last king of Assyria and a figure of Greek history. Walker’s smarter than a lot of us who show up to look at her work, but she leaves it up to you how deep you want to dive in to any of her allusions. How close you’re willing to get isn’t just a measure of how much you’re willing to be confronted by Walker’s work. It’s also a measure of whether you’re capable of seeing beyond your own shock.