The Kara Walker exhibition at Camden Arts Centre is an intriguing exhibition worth seeing whether from a gender, race or educational perspective.
Walker is well known for her controversial handling of the hyper-sexualised,playful even glamourised spin she puts on master/mistress /slave relations of the American south. Hers is a masterclass in passive aggressive modes of representation. She does this with an acutely detailed illustrative style which so often overwhelms us with its powerful storytelling format that we either miss or deny the presence of the penises, orifices, and even in some cases dollops of excrement that stand testimony to her “inner plantation” of the horrors of a slave existence writ large.
Those of us who have been privileged to view another American artist Ellen Gallagher’s AXME intensely layered multimedia work last year at the Tate Modern will have been exposed to this intense visual power that stencils, intercuts and collages can have as highly graphic and explosive “gender” tools or, in Walker’s case, weapons. But this depends on who is viewing the work, as a few of her contemporary female artists in the U.S.A. found her work (and early career rise in prominence) challenging.
Walker’s first major solo show in the UK, the Camden Arts Centre exhibition opened on 11 October with an introductory talk by art historian David Bailey and a well-placed video on the first floor near to the Camden Arts centre cafe in which we see and hear about the artist’s research and creative process. A hugely effective ploy I felt. Visitors to the three rooms Walker’s work occupies, in this old and well known community arts venue transformed to “white cube” gallery, would do well to view her shadow puppet video Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s BlueTale (2011) first. It sets the scene-together with her large scale graphite working drawings for her “historical” or (some may feel) “ahistorical” vignettes. At first, we are struck by the bold stark , contrasting outlines and their seemingly reassuring comfortable narratives from afar. Then eventually we get it, hers are grand denouements executed with large black paper cut-out storybook style figures. These march in odd juxtapositions trapped in racial caricatures, providing us with an alternative landscape of hugely discomforting topics.We are reminded in the first floor video of her influences and in the various accompanying exhibition texts that her new pieces refer to material taken from the White Supremicist movement documents not an interracial porn site!
But discussions of Walker’s subject matter and execution must also be informed by an awareness of the venue’s marketing choices that seem to isolate the exhibition from the UK’s Black History Month (BMH) continuum are overcome. Having noticed her absence from the listings of at least two BHM community magazines, other websites and social media, I stumbled on a lukewarm review of her work in The Voice newspaper (a British black publication). This contrasted with the brilliant reviews she has been given by Adrian Searle in The Guardian and in The Times and The Metro. On the evening that I visited her exhibition at the Camden Arts centre , the Marcus Garvey library in Haringey hosted Runoko Rashidi’s Black Women through the Ages slide presentation and talk which also used powerful imagery to reclaim experiences of gender erasure and historical bias. It was very well attended, in fact standing room only! There were several displays in the library of events linked to the month of celebration but it seems to me that an opportunity was missed to tap into this vast potential audience from the black community for Kara Walker’s exhibition. Was this a case of the Camden Arts Centre unconsciously avoiding the controversial discourse and genuine interest from community audiences at other Black History Month venues? Surely their marketing department should be paying more than lip service to the timing of this exhibition at the start of this season.
Leslee Wills (MA Art History, 2012)