[This text was written for the Camden Arts Centre's Exhibition: 'We at Camden Arts Centre are Exceedingly Proud to Present an Exhibition of Capable Artworks by the Notable Hand of the Celebrated American, Kara Elizabeth Walker, Negress.' up from October 2013 - Janurary 2014]
In the old slave ports of Bristol and Liverpool, the history is - well, not exactly inescapable, but there if you want to look for it. In the capital we tend to think of blackness as starting somewhere after World War Two, with the Windrush and calypso star Lord Kitchener sauntering down the gangplank singing ‘London Is The Place For Me’. We go to the Tate, but don’t think much about the sugar money that built it, let alone the plantations on the other side of the Atlantic. West India Quay is just a stop on the Docklands Light Railway.
And now Kara Walker, an American Negress, comes to London with her pencils and paper and scissors and glue, stirring up trouble. Digging up things that ought to have been laid to rest, ugly things from the past. How are we supposed to deal with these images - figures which seem like racist caricatures, situations filled with sexual violence, this endless carnival of cruelty that seems to be taking place in a sort of cultural Never-Neverland, somewhere between Gone With The Wind and hell?
Sorry, you find what offensive? Negress. Yes, of course. That ought to be African-American. Kara Walker, an African-American, uses old-fashioned language in her titles, which read like playbills or auctioneer’s advertisements. A black artist promoting an exhibition, or just making an exhibition of herself? Is she the one standing up on the auctioneer’s block, ready to show her fine set of teeth, to turn and display her backside to potential buyers? Who’s being exploited? Who’s getting paid? Everybody knows there’s no place whiter than a white cube – and now she’s filled it with such inky darkness! When a rich white collector buys these pictures, what does it mean? Or a black collector? Or…
Let me put it another way, madam: imagine you’re sitting on the tube and a gang of black boys comes on, big black boys in sagging trousers with their underpants showing, laughing and talking loudly, moving with that way they have, that rolling, physical way that makes it hard to ignore their bodies, hard not to think about what’s between their legs. When you tug down the hem of your dress and clutch your handbag a little tighter, that has nothing to do with history, right?
Now you seem really angry. I agree, that was probably uncalled-for. I’m sorry I’ve offended you. Yes, it is excessive, this endless parade of suffering. It’s hard to catch your breath when one horrible thing just seems to lead to another. We’ve banned the Robertson’s Golly. What more does Walker want? If anything, she’s the one making it worse. Just as we’ve forced all this filth back into its historical box, just as we’ve trained the white people not to use the words, here it comes again, the return of the repressed, grinning and capering, as if to say, you haven’t finished with me yet. Walker once explained (she has to do a lot of explaining) that ‘a black subject in the present tense is a container for specific pathologies from the past’. These figures, festering in our collective imagination, are evidence of a sickness that hasn’t gone away and won’t be cured with tasteful silence. Old fears about miscegenation and black hypersexuality still inform how black people are seen – and perhaps how they see themselves. It’s Walker’s most unsettling claim: that this muck of the past is the raw material of twenty-first century black subjectivity. Perhaps the most shocking thing of all is that a young black woman draws her way into her unconscious and finds this stuff still lurking there.
Black artists are supposed to represent positively. They’re supposed to lift up the race, or promote diversity, or do some other anodyne socially-useful thing for which there’s usually a jargon term, whether it’s 1925 or 2013. They’re not supposed to explore the underside of their identity in such an irresponsible, unfiltered way. That’s a privilege reserved for white artists, who can be shocking without being accused of dragging a whole bunch of other people around with them. Walker’s black bodies are exaggerated, comic, all holes and swellings and illegitimate couplings, the very opposite of the noble, closed-off white marble bodies that stand for elevation and decency in the tradition of high art. Often they’re silhouettes, not even individuals, just outlines, types, archetypes. The white master, the mammy, the buck and the belle. The social relations of slavery have gone, but the psychological trace remains.
It’s probably not surprising that an artist who has provoked a certain agitation among the gatekeepers of black culture should start turning over rocks in the sacred garden of the Harlem Renaissance. The title ‘Dust Jackets for the Niggerati’ is taken from a self-ironizing name given by the nineteen-twenties novelist and editor Wallace Thurman to his coterie of black intellectuals. The font Walker uses for her acid barbs echoes the typography Aaron Douglas invented to express New York bohemia’s hopes for a new black vanguard. So the ‘dust jackets’ Walker has produced seem like a question posed primarily to other black artists and intellectuals: what’s the difference between ecstatically proclaiming the birth of a ‘New Negro’ and writing a worthy academic book about something or other and modern black identity? One is the authentic impulse of modernism, madam. The other is 2013.
Heaven knows, identity politics is nothing to joke about. The quintessential modern American euphemism is ‘the N word’, and policing its usage seems to stand in, for a lot of people, for all the things which are less easy to change about the situation of black people in America. Instead of a New Negro, America has spewed out a New Jim Crow, in the shape of a prison system which incarcerates black men at a rate only explicable by racism. There’s no way of swirling any cream into that bitter coffee, not even under the rule of America’s first black president. Obama’s election brought a lot of watermelon and monkey jokes out of the white American closet, a lot of lynch-party daydreams. But what’s the real dirty secret of his presidency? Walker draws a lectern, an autocue, something which might be a screen. But there’s nobody there, and it looks like the equipment has been set up in a cell. It’s an obscene show all right, a tragedy performed by shadow puppets to the sound of muffled laughter.