In New Drawings, Kara Walker Traces American Histories of Christianity and Racism.
By Diana Sette
Her tumultuous charcoal drawings enshrine an unresolved US narrative filled with racism, martyrdom, and political violence.
Cleveland — What matters enough in American culture to warrant memorialization? Working at the American Academy of Rome earlier this year, surrounded by Renaissance and Baroque art that memorializes ancient Roman history wrought with political and religious violence, American artist Kara Walker began to reflect on her own country’s religious and political origins. The resulting show, The Ecstasy of St. Kara, recently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, grappled with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, American Civil War, African-American separatist groups, and deeply entrenched Christian ideologies. Walker’s tumultuous charcoal drawings, some of them massive, enshrine an unresolved US historical narrative filled with racism, martyrdom, and political violence.
One of the religious sculptures that Walker cites as inspiration for this body of work is a wax effigy of St. Victoria. The naturalistic sculpture is graphic: it shows the saint’s eyes rolled back in her head, throat slit, and mouth agape, with teeth viewable. Her hand is a cutaway that reveals her bones — a relic proving her incorruptibility, according to the Catholic tradition. In an essay in the exhibit’s catalogue, “Assassination by Proxy,” Walker keenly juxtaposes the violent image of St. Victoria with a rephotographed Google image of Diamond Reynolds’s picture of Philando Castile as he lay dying in a blood-drenched shirt with his head cocked back, a police gun pointed at him through his car window. “I fear that Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and all the rest were killed as proxies for The Black President,” Walker writes. Her work asserts that to be a black person in America is to be at risk for martyrdom.
Image: Kara Walker, The Republic of New Afrika at a Crossroads, 2016 (detail), graphite, raw pigment, watercolor medium on paper, 113 x 215 inches overall, framed