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Kara Walker: Brent Sikkema. (Reviews -- New York).

"Dear Cruel and malevolent Master," read one of the index cards punctuating Kara Walker's recent installation. "What irks me, you know this, is that I am and forever shall be a slave to that which brought (said: 'brung') me here." In an apparent afterthought, the "brought" and the "said" had been hastily crossed out with a red pen, the logic of the phrase rerouted through an act of self-editing. Both the note and its partial effacement are emblematic of Walker's ongoing project: She records, in her distinctly incendiary way, the trauma attendant on "surviving" the master-slave dialectic and the necessary failure to find a grammar or a voice--official, vernacular, or intimate--adequate to that experience. This failure constitutes the work's triumph: Walker's art demands reparation but expects no apology.

Best known for her nineteenth-century-style silhouettes of "mammies," "sambos," and assorted "darkies" in victimized or compromised poses on white backgrounds, Walker here presented more colorful, animated, and layered installations, including large-scale light projections beamed on gallery walls. The new brightness serves only to amplify the horrors to which the works bear witness. In Miss Merrimac and the-Monitor(all works 2001), a Renaissance burgher/slave trader kneels, sword in hand, as some sort of apocalyptic beast sets upon him. Filling in the silhouettes of the projected figure are white, blue, and bloodred Rorschach blot-like shapes within shapes, and unconscious optics throw up interpretive possibilities: Are those wispy clouds? Stately trees? Copulating bodies? Darkytown Rebellion deploys cutouts of various slave types (amputee runaways, mothers burdened by suckling children) in a faceless version of Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People: A lone figure waves a flag, her back arched in pain or pleasure as a small shadow sucks hungrily at her ass. This scene takes place amid cartoonish yet menacing brown, green, and beiggle shapes projected on the wall. In a group of drawings, Shylocky slave traders haggle over prices while slaves lie prostrate, broken; dreamy skies faintly illuminat orgies of violence. The two-dimensionality of Walker's silhouettes exaggerates the uncontainable pain; it is as though the figures from William Kentridge's Shadou Procession were denied music, denied procession, and thereby denied narratitive, left pinned and wriggling on the wall.

Perhaps more than any other young contemporary artist, Walker confronts antagonists in her art, both real and imagined. Her "cruel and malevolent" enemies include not only the propagators of historical harms to her community but also art's silent complicity with those harms. More locally, her work seems somehow infused with rage against Euro-American curators, collectors, and critics who have feted and embraced her as a "genius" while simultaneously exoticizing her and celebrating their own liberal magnanimity as well as artistic forebears who, through, consciousness-raising and political activism, paved the way for such liberal inclusiveness a cause Walker has been criticized for betraying). And yet Walker's art is utterly self-conscious: It points an accusing finger not only outward but inward, with disgust, laceration and occasional humor. The dialialectic unfolds again: "Because worse than you bein' my nemisis, my servant or a turncoat," she ventriloquizes on another three-by-five card, "is the possibility of yer bein' a innocent." 'Who is the "you" here, and who the implied "I"?

Walker's art offers no quarter to pieties or facile consolation. But in her unflinching examination of the manifold complicities of history, she unveils art's capacity, increasingly rarely invoked, to make palpable the gap between what is (and was) and what might be. It is this gap that allows something like "truth" or "reconciliation" to begin to be imagined.
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Author:Israel, Nico
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Nov 1, 2001
Words:585
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