- A Special Place within the Order of Knowledge:The Art of Kara Walker and the Conventions of African American History
In February 2007, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, premiered the first U.S. full-scale survey of work by African American artist Kara Walker. From the Walker, the exhibition traveled to ARC/Musée d'Art moderne de la ville de Paris, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, Texas. The exhibit was the brainchild of Philippe Vergne, the Walker's deputy director and chief curator, and assistant curator Yasmil Raymond. In her foreword to the exhibition book titled Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, Kathy Halbreich, the Walker's former director, addressed concerns about the artist's controversial work by saying, "I've tried to convey that part of our mission as a cultural institution, which I know some will characterize as relativistic folly or naïveté, is to represent many different value systems, to give space, alongside more familiar or palatable expressions, to the unfamiliar, the invisible, the unspeakable, and the contested."1 The unfamiliar, the invisible, the unspeakable, and the contested are precisely what I would like to concentrate on in this essay. In particular, I am interested in how those elements account for the gendered and sexualized contentions within African American intellectual history. I understand these disputes to have everything to do with the epistemic and moral components [End Page 185] of that much-congratulated invention known as African American history. And much of the storm around Walker's work takes place because she dares to target that invention and its machinery.
To begin with, Walker's art drives at themes that are at the core of African American gender and sexual formations, themes that have been at a certain center since the dawn of American chattel slavery. Despite the reassurances of progress, those annoying issues of immorality and respectability still wash up on the shore-to use historian Stephanie Smallwood's productive metaphor-like saltwater bringing in evening tide, slave ships, and the human cargo that would be subjected to new ways of measuring life and diminishing it.2 Walker's most famous means of depicting the persistence of those immoralities are those life-size silhouettes, those black holes that have made her work both admired and condemned. Whether we are talking about "The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven" from 1995 or the film Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions from 2004, the viewer is always confronted with those black holes that mark wall, paper, and screen. Discussing the function of the silhouette in her work, Walker states, "The silhouette is a blank space that you [can] project your desires into. It can be positive or negative. It's just a hole in a piece of paper, and it's the inside of that hole."3
We might read those holes as the invisible blemishes that African American history-as a way of writing and imagining community, as a script for living it-is supposed to withhold from conversation and keep out of sight. In this way, African American history is more than an academic enterprise, more than a matter of what month or months to discuss black contributions to the American landscape. It is the basis upon which we participate in politics. Whether taken from the histories of civil rights or black power, we rely on those histories to affirm the political choices and maneuvers that we make in the present. As Hayden White argues in his foreword...