Kara Walker

Fascinating and treacherous, Kara Walker’s new multimedia installation, titled Fibbergibbet and Mumbo Jumbo: Kara E. Walker in Two Acts, 2004, reconstructs a swamp-side antebellum campsite that happens to be haunted by a phantasmagoria of colored projections. Silhouettes of tall willow trees and knee-high grass, cut from sheets of plywood and painted black, encircle a burlap tent in the middle of the gallery. Dangling from string overhead is a frightening swarm of black crows cut from paper. Visitors are welcomed by a jagged signpost on which are projected “aphorisms” about black women (“Many black women are noisy during intercourse”). Openly theatrical rather than coherent or naturalistic, the mise-en-scène also involves nineteenth-century moving-image techniques. Behind a semitransparent backdrop that portrays a faint country landscape drawn with coffee stains spins a cyclorama that casts moving shadows of caricatured pre–Civil War figures. Placed throughout the space are small magic lanterns, whose perforated, rotating shades throw images in color onto the walls and floors. There are also several videos of the artist performing some of the characters we’ve grown to recognize from previous work: Projected onto the backdrop’s moon, she’s backlit and topless, dancing the Charleston à la Josephine Baker, while on the side of the tent, she appears in a white bonnet, hand extended, begging for alms.

The work is Walker’s most ambitious project to date, not only because of its physical complexity—by which it recalls the hybrid theatrical constructions of Joan Jonas—but also because it recovers an unusually vast network of historical and contemporary modes of imagemaking. The viewer is plunged into this mélange and granted the opportunity to discover the fantasy’s status as fiction, to inspect the flat forms and the flimsy wooden armatures on which the illusions rest. Walker’s artistry joins process to content with a rare potency: Those depthless profiles reveal the reductive emptiness of the stereotype, while the projections act both as low-tech movies and as massive disfigurements, offering up the nonsense alluded to in the project’s title.

Simultaneous invocation and deconstruction is at the crux of Walker’s strategy. Hers is an unsettling mimicry that takes up a repertoire of caricatures only to push them toward the limits of the obscene. The work binds pleasure to participation; one’s enjoyment of the piece’s visual power inevitably means complicity in its perverse scenario, followed by, one hopes, analytical introspection. But Walker herself is the first to enter the vicious circle. In a chilling performance on opening night, the artist and a coperformer appeared inside the installation, playing, respectively, what could have been a gentlemanly storyteller who contextualized the scene in hokey, anachronistic language and an enraged runaway slave. If the threat in this work stems from its potential to perpetuate the very racist clichés it attacks, then no doubt the risk must be run, for it concerns not only past fantasies but contemporary nostalgias. Courageously, Walker takes on such imagery, creating historical awareness and demanding an active response.

T.J. Demos