Kara Walker Rewrites the Rewritten

“Picture the center of the Earth, picture your spine and feet firmly grounded, picture a light beam connecting you into the ground, connecting you to the roots of all life. Breathe in the connection of all human beings, breathe out injustice.” David Jameson opened his discussion with this short meditation before diving into the lives of enslaved women during a lunch and learn event at MOCA Jacksonville. Acknowledging that a woman might be better suited to speak on the subject, Jameson read book excerpts and interviews from enslaved women rather than pushing his own ideologies on artist Kara Walker’s intense exhibition, “Cut to the Quick.”

Based in New York, Walker is best known for her candid investigation of race, gender, sexuality and violence through silhouetted figures. Her current MOCA exhibition, “Cut To The Quick,’ addresses the legacy of slavery and colonialism. Though rarely referred to in history classes or text books, sexual violence was always present in slavery and Walker work throws this reality in viewers’ faces.

Frames of inky silhouettes fill the blood-red painted walls of MOCA’s third floor. Simplified black forms accentuate the harshness depicted: severed heads, spilling organs, mistresses stomping the heads of enslaved children, enslaved women with their heads buried in the lap of their masters. Walker’s silhouette style mimics the early 19th-century fad of elegant wall decorations creating horrific historical imagery with charm. Her meticulous process is purposeful, and for that I am thankful. Any more detail would be hard to bear.

Similar to Walker’s work, the words of enslaved women like Savilla Burrell, Fannie Berry and Vina Still stray from the common narrative of empathy and victimization. Berry’s own words, as found in Slave Narratives, a folk history of slavery in the U.S., convey the fight against the sexual abuse from their masters and the jealous rage of mistresses: “Once he tried to throw me, but he couldn’t. We tousled and knocked over chairs and when I got a grip I scratched his face all to pieces and there was no more bothering Fannie from him.”

Confederate monuments continue to be acknowledged as historical sites in the South. The homes of slave owners and antebellum presidents are considered historical landmarks and the towering statues created in their likenesses are continually defended, while former slave markets and slave quarters are not considered worthy of restoration or protection and are largeled ignored despite the fact that Blacks comprised at least half the colonial population of certain cities. Today, people are attending Civil War reenactments on the very land Blacks were raped and flogged.

“Public art claiming to represent our collective memory is just as often a work of historical erasure and political manipulation,” novelist Zadie Smith wrote in The New York Review about Walker’s work. “It is just as often the violent inscription of myth over truth, a form of ‘over-writing’—one story, overlaid and thus obscuring another—modeled in three dimensions.” Walker turns this “over-writing” on its head, overlaying her own history atop archival imagery. In “Exodus of Confederates From Atlanta” from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), 2005, she prints woodblock silhouettes of enslaved men and women over photographically enlarged plates from an 1868 compilation of Civil War illustrations, originally published in Harper’s Magazine.

Walker’s “Cut To The Quick” is hard: It hurts to be immersed in so much violence. But it is a necessary component of understanding the <true> history of our nation. As the fight for unwriting the false narrative laid upon us by political institutions continues, it is not common in our age of division and misinformation to sit between walls of truth. Art makes space for a vessel of veracity as it has for many years.

I’ll leave you with a excruciating memory from Harriet Jacobs, a Black writer born into slavery. “Even the little child, before she is 12 years old, will become prematurely knowing in evil things. Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master’s footfall. She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child.”

“Cut to the Quick” will be on display at MOCA through Oct. 2.

About Rain Henderson

august, 2022

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