The artist’s bold new work, as seen in an exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, has taken on a terrifying new prescience in the Trump era
By Murray Whyte
A certain set of expectations attend any exhibition of the work of Kara Walker, the 47-year old African American artist whose tough-minded, incendiary work on the gulf between black and white in an enduringly racially polarized America shakes even the heartiest of souls.
That being so, The Ecstasy of St Kara, Walker’s current exhibition of new work at the Cleveland Museum of Art, doesn’t disappoint. Big, bold drawings in graphite and charcoal fill the two rooms here, offering a bleak catalogue of ghastly degradation: The Republic of New Africa at a Crossroads, a colossal two-panel piece invoking the name of an idealistic black separatist group, in which bright terrors – a bleeding womb, Confederate flags tinged in blood – emerge from a roiling gray fog; or Easter Parade in the Old Country, a vast triptych that culminates in an African woman, locked in an iron collar, being led by a chain in the hands of indifferent white man, her baby dragged along behind her.
Even so, it’s not the Walker most of us have come to expect. The artist became an instant sensation back in 1994, with a work called Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. When it appeared at the Drawing Centre in New York, audiences were struck by the rift between the form Walker had chosen to use – a tableaux of otherwise folksy cut-out figures in silhouette, a convention tied to her chosen era, the antebellum American south – and the content with which she filled it: rape and dismemberment of African American women and children by cheerful white masters, black men lynched and dangling from tree branches. It was as though Uncle Remus had run headlong into Clive Barker, with Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke serving as creative consultant.