reviews

Kara Walker, National Archives Microfilm Publication M999 Roll 34: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: Six Miles from Springfield on the Franklin Road, 2009, digital video, color, 13 minutes 22 seconds.

Kara Walker

Kara Walker, National Archives Microfilm Publication M999 Roll 34: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: Six Miles from Springfield on the Franklin Road, 2009, digital video, color, 13 minutes 22 seconds.

I CARRY AROUND WITH ME a thread of anxiety, a gnawing sense that the perception of black women in our culture is still broadly informed by a limiting and racist stereotype: that we are feeling machines—passionate, loud, and hulking. What the culture anticipates from us is a thing felt barometrically rather than something comprehended intellectually. While I am distinctly uncomfortable with narrative—that urge to correct, using language and personal experience—I know that historically it is one of the few world-changing artistic outlets for women and for people of color. And so I have burrowed my way into the terrain noisily, wrongheadedly.

Drawing and cutting paper and other nods to the handmade and homespun were, especially at the time I began working, seemingly anti-Conceptual techniques but were super useful as a way of posing a critique directed both at myself (my highfalutin attempts to engage the structures of white power) and at those structures of power (white supremacy, the Eurocentric language of contemporary art, the Us v. Them struggle of the Black Arts Movement). I have sought to maintain the intimacy and immediacy of drawing in all my work even as I branch out to video and, more recently, performance. This turn to film and video, in particular, has made my art accessible to a broader public, but the downside of its widening audience is its recurrent misuse as educational material for little children.

My work has always been about the dissonance between the perception of self and those historical structures, images, and myths that contort and influence identity. I use pared-down, clunky, and obsolete tools to shape my forms, lest anyone take the romantic lure of the racist imagination seriously. In the past, the overhead projector, that old mainstay in elementary-school instruction, was my go-to tool for creating a kind of low-grade video installation—one in which the viewer had to do much of the labor in order to make a cohesive narrative. The most up-to-date medium I have used so far was a pretty nice HD camera to shoot about a minute of nothing: me goofing off with a guitar, a Mississippi sunrise. Well, there were many hours of footage of nothing, but I edited away almost all of it.

I return time and again, though, to drawing (I consider my writing exercises to be drawings too) as the first level of engagement with my subject. Drawing is the means by which I speak and make strange sounds and get wise to those “unthought knowns” before taking a stab at the heart of an idea.