New York

Kara Walker

Narrative, as Toni Morrison pointed out at the height of pomo metafiction, might be an exhausted concept for white male writers who regard formal experimentation as a higher calling. But the unmediated African-American female voice is a newer entity both in fiction and in contemporary art, and one for whom narrative is still far from used up. There’s a narrative somewhere in Kara Walker’s second film, Eight Possible Beginnings Or: The Creation of African-America, Parts 1–8, A Moving Picture By: Kara E. Walker, 2005, though it’s resolutely nonlinear, continually wandering off and fetching up at the crossroads of history and fiction, of biography and autobiography, of comedy and tragedy.

As in most of Walker’s work, the story here is based on a real tragedy: Slavery in the antebellum South. The grainy black-and-white film is divided into eight acts that chart the progress of a male slave impregnated by his master who gives birth to a misshapen baby, who is buried in the soil, only to grow into a tree used for lynching. The site on which this occurs is called the Briar Patch, but originally, according to an old storyteller named Uncle Remus, it was called Dead Nigger Gulch. Interpolated into this tale are segments focusing on the Middle Passage (with figures labeled “African,” “Authentic,” and “Black”), the 1793 invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, and “plantin’ time” on the plantation. To make the film, Walker turned her signature cutout silhouettes into shadow-puppet marionettes—figures that function both as solid presence and blacked-out absence. The strings attached to the marionettes are visible, as are Walker’s and her assistants’ hands, at times guiding the puppets across the “stage.” The shadow of the artist also appears in several shots.

Part of what complicates Walker’s work is its sardonic humor, which comes in the form of overblown minstrel locutions that appear as onscreen text (“massa knock me up” or the closing “De’ En”) and the similarly overstated delivery of the script’s spoken portion. In the drawings and collages shown alongside the film, the macabre mixes with the comic, as it does in Daumier’s caricatures, or the horrific visions of Goya’s “Disasters of War” etchings (1810–20). (A pencil drawing of a nude woman straddling a skeleton dressed in Confederate uniform titled That Thing, 2006, particularly invokes the latter.) But the humor is dangerous: The viewer is implicated.

Walker understands the complications of humor and the seductive power of plot. (She’s described the experience of being simultaneously repulsed and enthralled by Margaret Mitchell’s romance Gone With the Wind [1936].) Add to this a couple of recent episodes that further entangled the already fraught matrix of race in America: the revelation of Essie Mae Washington-Williams, South Carolina segregationist Strom Thurmond’s daughter by an African-American woman, and the scuffles between the descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s two families—the “white” one and the one he had with a slave named Sally Hemmings—and the title of Walker’s film, Eight Possible Beginnings . . . , seems perfect. Slavery ended, but that was only one of a series of potential fresh starts.

Martha Schwendener