Kara Walker: Unsettling narratives
If refraction reorients boundaries and shapes that we take for granted, then this literal impulse lies at the center of the well-known cut-paper silhouettes of Kara Walker, which I now examine through the lens of translation and refraction. In Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart (1994), the title itself is an off-center re-naming of Gone with the Wind, the famous romance novel set in the South during the Civil War. What do the contents of such an intentionally unsettling translation entail?
From a distance, the paper cuts evoke romantic antebellum folklore and nostalgic children’s storytelling; however, up close, they present “slavery as an absurd theater of eroticized violence and self-deprecating behavior.” With just a few adjustments of the visual line, Walker ruptures a sentimental, historicized form into something grotesque, and in doing so, she also unsettles any naive history or idealization we have internalized about this moment.
The result is powerful, visceral critique, where the tension between what is known to the viewer and what is shifted is jarring and even surreal, destabilizing archetypes, confronting stereotypes, and drawing attention to the violence of the fantasy and the slippery boundary between history and fiction. The uncanny discomfort of having the contours of our expectations so harshly disrupted is exactly the space in which Walker is able to urge us to confront what lies beneath the surface of our narratives and to question our own complicity. Indeed, what is brought to the surface in her paper cuts is the very fact of disparity between planes of perception. We are caught in our uncomfortable reactions. Whose fantasies? What is primal? Who and what is at the origin of violence and assault?
The impact of Walker’s paper cuts relies on translating-by-refracting an established and seemingly innocent form; without this rupturing, the audience is not forced to confront the duality of appearance versus underbelly, fiction versus truth. Things are not what they seem, and what Walker exposes is the palpable ugliness and violence of our history, our narratives, our fantasies. Although the form and the subject reference backward in time, the contents also feel modern. Indeed, what is at stake in Walker’s artwork is the underbelly of the reality in which we live—that which we turn away from or fail to acknowledge. By slightly contorting a familiar visual cue, these small adjustments in the scissors’ movement transfigure an inherited form of seeing into something truer, staggering, and sharp-edged.
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Header image: Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart (1994), Museum of Modern Art.
Quotation is from "Kara Walker: Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!," an exhibition description at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2013.