The South Outside the Region: Kara Walker at the Cleveland Museum of Art
by Arden Cone
The Ecstasy of St. Kara, on view for the first time at the Cleveland Museum of Art, consists of new works on paper by Kara Walker. Though the artist has garnered international acclaim, with honors from the MacArthur Foundation, Time magazine, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, her works generally portray life in a smaller locale, a region we call the American South.
At the age of thirteen, the African American artist moved from her native California to Stone Mountain, Georgia, where she saw the scars of racism carved, quite literally, into stone. On the rock face of the city’s only mountain, once owned by a Klansman, is the largest bas-relief in the world, an acre and a half in size. That it pays eternal tribute to three Confederate leaders seemed, to Walker, to hold a prophecy: the Lost Cause will never die, and racial equality is far out of reach. Her fight against this prognosis rings out in The Ecstasy of St. Kara, on view at the museum through December 31st.
Walker’s choice of race as her subject remains as relevant now as it has been for centuries. Equally as relevant is her choice of imagery, which takes us from Biblical times to Black Lives Matter. While the artist depicts the horrors of black oppression throughout history, she also alludes to efforts at a black utopia in America. A floor-to-ceiling diptych, The Republic of New Afrika at a Crossroads, (a reference to the black separatist group by the same name) feels like a utopia that couldn’t handle the pressure. The dominant colors, green, red, and black, evoke the Republic of New Afrika flag, but the work’s figures are tossed about in hopeless chaos. Walker employs the most ruthless of African American stereotypes in her depictions of morphed, monkeylike figures, some of which resemble fetuses more than humans. Two hold Confederate flags, and one, with legs wide open, gives birth to a pool of blood. Larger African American figures, two men and a girl rendered in white, crawl out of the messy graphite like phantoms. They wield metal tools—a hoe, an axe, and a crowbar—that could be used for working in submission or a violent rebellion from it. Submission, violence, utopia. These three themes, in that order, could be the way to form a New Afrika or the reason for it.
And there are plenty of reasons for it. In another work, Walker takes us into the racially motivated violence of the 1980s, but the piece could just as easily be referencing any of the numerous hate crimes occurring just this year. The collographic print is one of the few pieces in the exhibition that escapes from the artist’s signature look. Whereas most of her works feel like scenes from a bygone era, the 80s run straight through this diptych like a ball of energy. Flames have erupted through the black and white scene, and firefighters move quickly to contain them. Depicted is the horrific 1985 bombing of the headquarters of MOVE, a black separatist group. Chilling sadness moved over me as I read the complete wall text: it was a police-led the bombing.
Escape, from the flames, from the hatred, and into a utopia is what these African American figures seem to desire. Who could blame them? But utopia is never a real possibility, as is spelled out in another work, Securing a Motherland Should Have Been Sufficient. A black woman builds the body of a large ship, while another figure uses crowbar to sabotage her work. The ship may be seen as a beacon of hope, a way of escape to the motherland, but efforts to build it are in vain. As an image, however, the ship is more complex, loaded with different associations. I cannot help but consider that these large vessels once carried human property. Walker has drawn countless dark-skinned figures outside the craft, crammed between its incomplete body and the edges of the paper. They are piled in heaps, reminiscent of slaves crowded beneath the deck. If only they could board a ship—above the deck this time— and sail to a motherland, they would find freedom in utopia.
Through the course of an exhibition, Walker covers a lot of ground, depicting the era of slavery and that of Black Lives Matter in nearly the same breath. And they belong in the same breath, for the latter will never succeed while the former festers unmentioned. By broadening her lens of time, she broadens her lens of place, forgoing imagery pulled from Southern plantation life, as seen in her previous works, and instead reporting on a whole nation’s struggle for racial equality. Perhaps her recent residency in Rome inspired her historical imagery, and surely the current social climate inspired her present-day imagery. Regardless of how she arrived here, I’m glad she did. Yet, it’s apparent she just arrived. Even as complete as they are, the works are still just thoughts, not yet ready to become ideas.
The sea swells beyond reach; utopia is just across the ocean. Walker’s new direction is at her feet, and she will advance, a vertical shadow headed towards the horizon. Will she make it to utopia? Never. But the path she treads will never be virgin land again.