The African-American artist is showing her horrific drawings in Europe for the first time, as she deals with her life in a racist society.
One of the most shocking images in the Basel Gallery is Kara Walker’s portrayal of Barack Obama, which she depicts in an oversized pastel painting as Othello Moore’s Venice from Shakespeare’s Tragedy. Contrary to the play, he does not hold the severed head of adventurer Iago in his lap, but rather the head of his opponent Trump, to whom he has just crossed his left eye.
In another picture, the African American artist depicts the black American president as Saint Anthony, who is tormented by demonic creatures. These appear to have been taken directly from Martin Schongauer’s famous inscription on the copper plate “Die Peinigung des St. Anthony »(1475). Walker explains about the photo that Obama’s agonies explicitly refer to the attacks of “Birther”, proponents of the conspiracy theory, according to which Barack Obama was not born in the United States and therefore should not have been president of the United States.
However, there are very few pastel paintings on display in the Kara Walker Gallery at the Kunstmuseum Basel. Instead, at the center of the exciting and sometimes harrowing display are her drawings from the past 30 years or so, which are being shown for the first time in a major gallery in Europe. In it, the artist deals with the horror in the lives of black Americans, which screams at us from almost every drawing.
Famous and famous, 51-year-old Kara Walker, the history of her family can be traced back to the time of slavery, but not by her drawings, but by her huge silhouettes, the width of which can reach tens of meters. Mostly in black and white, elegant shades tell us about racism and slavery. Like Shadow Parades by South African artist William Kentridge, these shapes have no depth of perspective. In Switzerland, Walker’s murals have been repeatedly shown at Art Basel Unlimited.
In Kara Walker’s art, the story of slavery and racism is told as a mixture of historical facts, myths and legends. Motifs are also often nourished by traumatic experiences and collective memories that arise when the artist encounters racist events. In the drawings, you can feel the artist’s resentment and racism more than the clean scraps of paper or the massive sculptures she has drawn attention to in recent years.
In 2014, for example, she had a sphinx made of sugar and Styrofoam that was built in a former sugar factory in Brooklyn (New York). This remarkable art of surprise was 23 meters long, 10 meters high, and 7 meters wide: a sexual figurine depicting a black woman completely naked except for a hair tie, with giant breasts between arms supported, buttocks and genitals exposed. A work in which Walker displayed racist clichés and denounced at the same time, or, as the American art historian Rebecca Peabody of the Getty Research Center put it, a work that “expels or exercises racist fantasies.”
Painting is like exorcism
How right she is to exorcise evil spirits! Because in the world of Kara Walker graphics, as a visitor, you feel a little bit as if you’re witnessing an exorcism. These graphics are not for sensitive hearts. It shows the artwork in the process of its creation and reveals the intimate and outrageous and thus also the most terrible events.
Walker’s pen often looks up and trawls through the paper until he finds the right line. Then she takes the brush she’s dipped in brown or red and sweeps it across the paper, creating very simple, semi-comic characters. With the newer works one feels reminded of Renaissance paintings working with white augmentation and dark glass, then again the models of this stylistic work seem anything but non-uniform from the nineteenth century.
Kara Walker points out that her drawings cannot be used as direct testimony or even as evidence. Rather, they should be interpreted as technically exaggerated representations that emerged from the daily life of a black artist who feels nothing but assimilation. Because the established American artist still talks about leading a marginal presence in the United States and not really belonging to the American majority community.
She doesn’t clean, she vomits
In the catalog introduction, Kara Walker references a key scene in her graphic work. A naked black woman kneels in front of a white man who puts his foot on her head as if it were a shoe shine chair. A humiliated woman does not clean up, but vomits. Walker sums up her resistance to the racism she suffers as omnipresent: “I am immersed in the paradoxical position of a submissive queen who gives but not what I ask for.”
Despite her fighting spirit, which the black freedom fighter perhaps best expresses in the drawings entitled “Shocking Declaration of Independence”, the artist also reminds us again and again of the frustrated and Sisyphus-like struggle.
In the large-format complex drawing “Yesterday in Today’s America,” for example, a shoe-only black woman escapes from a ghostly female figure she refers to as a conductor carrying a bamboo cane. I ran towards a rock musician who sings loudly and has the features of Elvis Presley and Donald Trump.
They are noticed by many black characters who appear passive and allow them to run, worship or even try to stop them. In the background, even a small black family roams in beautiful harmony.
The picture, based stylistically on the circular, flowing shapes of frescoes by Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975), a white artist, masterfully paints the field of tension in which young African-American women live: between black morals and a thriving, pop culture White-dominated, he’s almost madly driven.
Kara Walker: «A black hole is everything its star expands to be», Kunstmuseum Basel, bis 26. 9.