Critics’ Picks

Kara Walker, The Welcoming Committee, 2018, gouache on paper, 22 x 30''.

Kara Walker, The Welcoming Committee, 2018, gouache on paper, 22 x 30''.

Basel

Kara Walker

Kunstmuseum Basel
St. Alban-Graben 16 & 20
June 5–September 26, 2021

Kara Walker reveals her archive for the first time in an exhibition at Kunstmuseum Basel, presenting a trove of works on paper that wrestle with representation in drawing and the written word. This accumulation of manifold narrative strategies—from storyboards to word webs, dream diaries to cartoons—lays bare the material process, and psychological processing, behind Walker’s silhouettes and monuments, excavating the inner workings of Walker’s mind and the annals of an abject American history. In The Welcoming Committee, 2018, a work alluding to the snatching, routine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of recently buried Black bodies from graves for medical research, the hooded figure of Trayvon Martin stands with arms outstretched, as if trying to reach the autopsy table around which a group of ghostly white doctors gather. The gouache-and-graphite scene on light-brown paper grows more nightmarish still: A decapitated skeleton has taken the place of the cadaver, the composition a spectral reimagining of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1875, rendered with the gestural drama of Delacroix or Gericault.

The show is an emphatic reminder that Walker is a drawer, having long abandoned oil painting as something built and burdened by white male tradition and thus unsuited to her own subjectivity and subject matter. Many works are annotated with Walker’s thoughts on the drawing medium and the kinds of generative friction it produces. Like her other forms of mark-making, these notes seem at once scrutinizing and improvised: In pencil atop a sheet washed in muddy red paint, she jots, “Perpetrator inflicts will on paper too receptive—or? Is it the gimp? Paper should stand up and fight back.” The exhibition’s title, “A Black Hole Is Everything a Star Longs to Be,” was lifted from lines Walker wrote years ago and conjures the engulfing force at the core of her oeuvre: Imagine the vast array of works exhibited here, both contained within and obliterated by her opaque, iconic silhouettes.