Art of the Week

Kara Walker (b.1969)
Boo-Hoo, 2000
Linocut on Arches paper, 102 x 52 cm.
Gallery purchase, The Friends of Houghton House-Paula Kalenik ’71

Kara Walker is best known for her room-size tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes that examine the underbelly of America’s racial and gender tensions. Her works often address such highly charged themes as power, repression, history, race, and sexuality.

Born in Stockton, California, Walker moved to the South at age 13 when her father, artist Larry Walker, accepted a position at Georgia State University and her family relocated to Stone Mountain, a suburb of Atlanta. Focusing on painting and printmaking in college, she received her BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. Walker was included in the 1997 Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Later that year, at the age of 27, she became the youngest recipient of the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant, which launched a public controversy around her work. In 2002 she was chosen to represent the United States in the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is included in the collections of major museums worldwide. The 2007 Walker Art Center–organized exhibition Kara Walker: My Complement, My Oppressor, My Enemy, My Love is the artist’s first full-scale U.S. museum survey. Walker currently lives in New York, where she is a professor of visual arts in the MFA program at Columbia University.

“Walker’s unwieldy imagination is fixated with race in the starkest and most American of terms, black and white, as they were forged in the ante-bellum South, a time not so long ago in a galaxy called here.”

Boo-Hoo is a print in which we see a woman with an Afro, hoop earrings, and a full skirt, whose lips and eyes resemble blackface, weeping copiously as she gingerly holds a whip and snake, both turned in towards herself. Why is the woman crying? Not so much because of the torture she undergoes, which takes on a humorous and cartoonish tone, not least because she inflicts it on herself. Following Butler, I suggest that we read this print as an attempt to picture a subject for whom melancholia has been structural.

In this reading, the whip and the snake that the woman holds can be read not just as objects which she uses to effect her own torture, or mementos of the time when slavery was taking place, but as metaphors for the stereotypical images of blackness that Walker uses in her work. For the black subject who sees the way that society sees her in these images, they are weapons that continue to sting long after whips have ceased to do so. The deep cultural ambivalence about these images, whose display is considered unequivocally problematic by some, and encouraged by others because it reveals America ‘s true racism, means that they come up again and again, remaining painful but never being publicly mourned. Though their historical origin dates back to the time of slavery, they cannot render that history knowable today, and hence bring a kind of pain that can only indicate the unrecoverability of its origin. As Reid-Pharr writes about Walker’s autofiction and her approach to memory. Instead of attempting to access the historical period from which racist images originate, Boo Hoo brings the blackface image to the surface yet again to address its unmournable quality, and to reveal how the use of such images in art that deals with Black identity fundamentally fails to recoup the history it addresses, creating a specific type of pain that is about the consequences that the citation of that history in the present has for the subject.

Walker, Kara Elizabeth. Kara Walker : narratives of a negress / New York : Rizzoli, 2007.
“Missus Kara E. Walker: Emancipated, and On Tour / Exhibition review and review article” By: Pinder, Kimberly N. Art Bulletin, December 2008, Vol. 90 Issue 4, p640-648
“Transgression, Excess, and the Violence of Looking in the Art of Kara Walker.” By: Wall, David. Oxford Art Journal, Oct2010, Vol. 33 Issue 3, p277-299

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