History and Social Consciousness in the Medium and Material of Kara Walker’s Silhouette Installations

Written by Sylvie Schwartz
Edited by Muhan Zhang

Content note: descriptions of sexual violence, mention of oppressive language

Kara Walker was born in California and spent her childhood years there before moving to Georgia in the 1980’s. In the American south, Walker was rejected by the white children in her community because of the color of her skin and by the other African American children because her accent was too “white.”[i] The alienated environment of her childhood led to her view her place in society as part of a racialized performance that she was forced to take part in.[ii] As an adult, Walker became interested in exploring the construction of African American identity and its place in contemporary American culture and frequently addressed these questions in her work.  She is most famous for her large-scale silhouette installations on the subject of American slavery. These are comprised of near life-sized cut outs from black paper that form recognizable stereotypes from the antebellum south, which are adhered to white gallery walls. Upon their exhibition, these installations inspired controversy among prominent African American artists, with some arguing that these installations only serve to perpetuate racist agendas and reinforce negative stereotypes of African Americans.[iii] Walker’s defenders, however, credit these works as a parodic reclamation of derogatory images that have been firmly planted in the American psyche throughout history.[iv] Some even go so far as to argue that these installations use a “strategy of mockery” which devalues the racist narratives that they are responding to.[v]

Both sides’ opinions are grounded in the way in which Walker’s installations make visible the often-unacknowledged ugliness at the heart of American culture. Indeed, these installations seem to fill in the holes in the narrative left by other romanticized and sanitized accounts of slavery by including sexually and violently explicit images of encounters between masters and slaves, directly addressing the physically and sexually exploitive nature of those relationships. By filling in the gaps of America’s common slavery narrative and by using recognizable stereotypes to create characters in her narrative, Walker engages with the history of African American representation and with the cultural legacy of the antebellum south. Two of her early silhouette installations, Gone: An Historical Romance as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994, figure 1) and The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (1995, figure 2), illustrate this dialogue particularly well. Their titles are direct references to popular novels of the period: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, respectively. By grounding these two works in a well-known literary context and using recognizable racial archetypes to convey her twist on the narrative, Walker places the viewer in a familiar environment that facilitates their understanding of her message. The fact that this environment is still familiar, though, points to the persistence of racism and of racist narratives in contemporary American society. These two works effectively challenge the viewer to consider the validity of racial representations and their own complicity in a racist society through their use of the silhouette medium and its attending material properties. While the form of Gone and The End of Uncle Tom acts as a mediator for the complex historical context that these installations are drawing on, the simplicity of the material confronts the viewer, acting as a catalyst for self-reflection.

Figure 1. Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Romance as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. 1994. Paper. 13 x 50′

Both installations take up the full expanse of the gallery wall with character groupings that seem isolated from one another but form a unified tableau when read from left to right.[vi] These groupings are set in plantation settings, signified by a few landscape details such as plants and Georgian houses in the background. Rather than the typical representations of relationships between masters and slaves, these installations show relationships characterized by violence, coercion, exploitation and subjugation. Gone begins with a couple leaning in to kiss each other. However, two pairs of legs come out from the bottom of the woman’s skirt: one appears to be the legs of an animal and the other’s short length suggests they are those of a child. The man’s back is turned to an African American child holding a dead rooster out to an African American woman with disproportionately long legs seated nearby. Behind her is a hill on which a white boy and African American girl are engaged in an act of fellatio. The boy gestures upwards to the figure of an African American boy, floating under the power of his inflated and buoyant penis. Beneath him, an African American girl lifts her leg as two babies fall out from underneath her skirt onto the ground. In the final image, a white man has lifted the backside of an African American woman holding a broom to his face and seems to be carrying her away with him. Instances such as this, when physical contact joins two bodies in an act of sex or violence, become even more unsettling in the silhouette because the form combines the two distinct bodies into one hybrid figure.[vii] These features make the tableau into a nightmarish landscape masquerading under the guise of idyllic depictions of the period it is portrayed in antebellum narratives such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

Figure 2. Kara Walker, The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven. 1995. Paper.

The End of Uncle Tom is even more sexually explicit than Walker’s previous work.  It begins with three women, each nursing each other as the last nurses a baby. They are separated from the rest of the figures in the work by a train of feces left in piles by an African American boy as he walks with one foot in an adult’s boot and a tambourine in his hand. The central figural grouping is composed of a white woman raising an axe above her head, pointed at herself. In front of her there is a small African American boy holding a bucket, and behind her is an African American girl holding a sharpened stick ready to skewer the woman’s rear end. Beside them is a young African American girl being sodomized by a white man who has a peg leg. She is bent over, holding a corn stalk for support and looking back at the man sodomizing her. The man rests his immense belly on her back and counterbalances his weight by leaning on a sword that impales a baby on the ground behind him. The installation ends with an African American man whose arms are raised in prayer as he looks up towards the sky. His pants are pulled down to his knees and an umbilical cord coming from his anus connects him to another baby on the ground that mirrors the one impaled by the peg-legged man. The interactions represented in the figure groupings point to the perversity and degradation inflicted on the slaves by their masters and the way in which these relationships were characterized by coercion and exploitation.

Both installations use this kind of familiar yet disturbing imagery to contend with the challenge of representing slavery in the era after the deaths of everyone who experienced its atrocities. Marianne Hirsch has posited the idea of “postmemory” in relation to the Holocaust, which is likewise applicable here.[viii] It describes the relationship of subsequent generations to a traumatic historical event that is experienced now only through stories passed down from original survivors. These stories, however, loom so large in the America’s collective consciousness that they’re almost memories in themselves.[ix] One scholar has described it as “a haunted condition, in which images from the past hover over the present or erupt into it.”[x]The anachronistic qualities of Walker’s installations illustrate Hirsch’s of postmemory because the presentation of familiar images from the antebellum period through the medium of an unpopular art form comment on the prevalence of antiquated race narratives in contemporary social consciousness.[xi]

Walker’s use of anachronism in her installations draws the past into the present in a way that is explicit and disturbing, creating a visual language to address the complicated legacy of slavery. In so doing, the installations forge a relationship between the viewers and their ancestors, who may have been directly involved in the slave trade or indirectly benefited or suffered from it.[xii] Historically the expression of the experience of slavery has been curtailed by societal standards of what is deemed appropriate for discussion. The literary genre of the slave narrative, which was a form of memoir recounting the life of a slave, was among the most common platforms for slaves to share their experience, either by writing one themselves or by working with a white abolitionist author.[xiii] In both cases, however, many of the graphic details of the slave’s life were omitted because they could not be publicly acknowledged during the 19th Century.[xiv] The boy carrying a tambourine in The End of Uncle Tom (figure 3) is emblematic of this particular challenge. In this context, the piles of feces show his struggle to find his voice and having the words come out the wrong way, or, as Walker puts it, literally, “it’s about finding one’s voice in the wrong end.”[xv] Because Walker’s installations explicitly show often-ignored aspects of slavery, they may be seen as a “rememory” of previously disremembered aspects of slavery.[xvi]

Figure 3. Kara Walker, The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (detail). 1995. Paper

The larger history of African American representation and its oppressive nature are implicated in the silhouette form. The use of the silhouette was central to the physiognomic theories of Johann Caspar Lavater, an 18th Century scientist who believed that a person’s character could be read in their facial features.[xvii] He used the silhouette to illustrate his ideas, as it highlighted the person’s general facial characteristics but disregarded any individuating features that suggest a subjectivity.[xviii] Walker’s installations directly reference this early example of scientific racism in her exaggeration of stereotypes of African Americans that can be traced back to the antebellum period. While the race of many figures can be determined through their clothing, with the white wearing the genteel clothing of plantation owners and African Americans wearing much shabbier clothes or no clothes at all, the difference may also be distinguished through their facial features. The African Americans in her works have large, protruding lips, broad noses, and course, curly hair, while the white people have much daintier features, such as small, pointed noses and silky hair. She makes use of stereotypic slave figures, such as the “nigger wench,” a young, attractive black girl who acts as the object of desire for the white man, as well as the pickaninny, a scrawny black child, and the mammy, a buxom black woman, typically shown wearing an apron with her hair wrapped in a kerchief.[xix] Walker’s installations recontextualize these characters from their idyllic antebellum associations and explicitly reveal the negative treatments such figures would have undergone as slaves. By bringing them into a contemporary gallery space, Walker places her work in conversation with the way that the two races have been portrayed in conjunction with each other.

Although the races are differentiated through their facial features, dress, and other physical attributes, in the silhouette form every figure regardless of race is cut out from black paper. Walker has referred to cutting the silhouettes out of black paper as creating something “excavated,” the drawing out of something that’s been obscured over time. [xx] Because the blackness of the figures prevents the viewers from being able to look directly at the scene in front of them as they would a scene in a painting, the figures become a void that the viewers can project meaning into.[xxi] Indeed, their black shapes may be seen as the nightmarish projections of the American subconscious. While the black paper has a leveling effect on the race of the characters, it contrasts the white wall that it is adhered to. The fundamental black-and-white dynamic of the installations suggests the impossibility of nuance, which is paralleled by the scene that it creates in which the only two possible social positions are polarized as master and slave.[xxii] The very fact that the silhouettes are a craft, something that has clearly been created by human hands, draws attention to the constructed nature of American racism. It “demonstrates the extent to which the very concept of race is a powerful fiction based on the construction of a mythical Other upon whom we project our irrational fears and compulsive desires.”[xxiii] The projected self-hatred of the white master onto the African American slave is reflected in the white mistress in at the center of The End of Uncle Tom (figure 4).[xxiv] By raising the axe that is pointed at herself rather than at the slave in front of her, she shows that “Violence towards the other is really violence towards the self… for the other represents the repulsive that is always within.”[xxv] By giving only outlines of the figures and removing individuating details, the silhouette shows racial difference while highlighting the fictive nature of that difference.

Figure 4. Kara Walker, The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (detail). 1995. Paper

As a form, silhouettes have historically been considered a “popular” rather than high art, generally associated with the feminine.[xxvi] Because of its low status and relative accessibility, Walker has noted that as a form it might have been available to African American women during the 19th Century.[xxvii] Walker’s installations heighten the unnerving effect of her tableaux through the dissonance between the violent and sexually explicit content of the works and the “genteel and antiquated technique” that Walker used to produce them.[xxviii] The figures are even more disturbing because Walker increases the size of the silhouette until they become monstrous, almost nightmarish figures that force their way into the viewers’ space.[xxix] By confronting the viewers at their own size directly at eye level, the silhouettes create the illusion that the events are really unfolding in front of the viewers in shadow form, reinforcing the idea that the figures are subconscious projections.  Indeed, the shadows seem almost to be the misbehaving shapes of the viewers’ own shadows, acting out the impulses of America’s collective consciousness without the viewers’ control.

The suggestion of projection would not be possible without the material qualities of the silhouette form. When discussing these qualities, three materials must be taken into consideration. The black paper that the silhouettes are cut out of is the most obvious, however, the white gallery wall and even the gallery space as a whole are equally important. Finally, light may also be considered as a material in these installations because a change in the lighting has the potential to change the way that the viewers experience the work. Three principle attributes of these materials come to bear on these installations: lack of detail, two-dimensionality, and fragility. They create unrelenting, confrontational works that highlight the transgressive nature of the images, implicating the viewers in what they see. The history of the form is likewise embedded into the material because, as Karen Barad shows in her essay, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” materiality and discursivity are mutually entangled in one another.[xxx] In this context, it means that materials are necessarily implicated in the way that Walker engages with a discourse of race, and likewise that that discourse is planted in the materials that Walker uses. When viewed this way, materials take on an active role in the formation of the meaning of the artwork in its implicit suggestion that race is a construction that the viewer is complicit in.

Because paper is the only material used to form the figures in the installation, the figures are rid of any identifying features and are reduced to shapes, a quality that Walker uses to actively involve the viewer in the works. Her use of paper to convey a narrative “reduces a subject to the least possible amount of information,” forcing the viewers to rely on internalized stereotypes about race in America to understand the scene.[xxxi] Thus, the viewers cannot understand these works without also realizing that racist ideas about racial difference have been engrained into their worldview and understanding of American history. By highlighting the ways in which racial representation plays an active role in the viewers’ experience of the world, the tableaux draw the viewers toward the unpleasant conclusion that they, to some extent, are also racist, making them seem no more innocent than the figures on the walls.

The viewer’s involvement with the events displayed in the installations is heightened when the room in which the installations are set is lighted in such a way that the viewer’s shadow is cast on the wall with the rest of the figures.[xxxii] Shadows, like the silhouettes, also take away the individuating features of a person and leave them only as the outline of a dark shape. The similarities between the viewers’ shadows and the silhouettes on the walls cause the viewers to clearly see themselves as a part of the narrative unfolding in the installation, forcing them to acknowledge that they too play a role in the racial dynamics that have been active in society since the time of slavery. These installations reveal American society’s collective guilt for the history of slavery by putting the viewers on the same level as the other figures in the scene, engaged in degrading and violent acts.[xxxiii] These installations make the viewers aware of their status as a participant in the events that they witness both in bringing the viewers into the work through the viewers’ shadows and through forcing the viewers to take an active role in understanding the narrative in front of them.

A two-dimensional, relatively insubstantial material, paper itself is shadow-like. Its flimsiness mirrors the scant history of the treatment of slaves that was caused by the omission of the most disturbing aspects of a slave’s life on the grounds of social decency. As the silhouettes try to represent a history of slavery that has hardly been recorded, the paper figures are present, but barely so. Because ghosts and shades are frequently represented as shadowy figures, the not-quite-there aspect to the paper also has a haunting effect, making it seem that the figures of the dead have been reanimated to play out the events of their lives on the gallery walls.[xxxiv] The sense of death that this brings about reminds the viewers of their own mortality, while the paper’s insubstantiality reminds the viewers of their own corporeality.[xxxv] The contrast between the paper’s flimsiness and the viewers’ substantiality, as well as the contrast between the obvious ways that race relations are played out in the installations and the more subtle ways that they are played out in contemporary America, draws attention to the mutability of race relations over time. The installations intimate a future where there is further possibility for change. Though the shades mediated through the figures on the walls have lost their capacity to act directly, their ambiguous form calls attention to the unresolved nature of racial injustice that is most clearly embodied in slavery but that has lingering manifestations up to the present.[xxxvi] Walker’s installations offer no solution, but by drawing attention to a lingering social problem they may act as a subtle call to action for the viewers, who can enact the changes that the figures on the walls cannot.[xxxvii]

The paper’s flatness relegates it to the margins of the room. Though it takes up space in the visual field, it takes up physical no space within the gallery itself causing the viewers to feel almost as if they are in an empty room. The images hover around the edges of the room, like America’s racist history hovers around the edges of its consciousness, quietly and almost unnoticeably encroaching into its viewing space. The silhouettes’ use of the wall encourages the notion that the events unfolding take place in an unidentifiable location. In being unframed works adhered directly to the wall rather than traditional framed pieces that are hung on walls, they refuse containment. Walker has cited 19th Century cycloramas, which placed images within a cylindrical form to give the viewer the illusion of a panoramic view, as an inspiration.[xxxviii] In this way, further development of these installations would become a never-ending cycle rather than delineating clear start and end points. Walker has described her ideas of having them wrap around the walls, creating “a kind of history painting encompassing the whole room,” showing the ongoing nature of racism throughout history by taking away a clear start and end point from which to read the narrative.[xxxix] Although Gone and The End of Uncle Tom only take up one wall, they capture the cycloramic feeling in their use of the entire wall. However, because this cycloramic kind of history painting is imbued with a sense of insubstantiality, it also comments on the absence of their subject in traditional art museums and other historical institutions.

The silhouettes also extend the room in their use of basic perspectival techniques such as the diminishing of the piles of feces in The End of Uncle Tom and the small background details of the landscape in Gone. In this way and because the installations have no clear boundaries, the fictive space in which the scenes take place seems like an extension of the viewers’ space, casting the wall as a liminal dream-like space.[xl]  The titles of the works reinforce this notion by giving non-locatable locations. Though they both give a few landscape details in the background, plants in the case of Gone and a plantation house and other small buildings signifying an estate in The End of Uncle Tom, the locations are, respectively, “between the dusky thighs of one young negress and her heart” and “heaven.” The inability to define the space where the works take place contributes to a haunted feeling of something being ever-present but not fully there either.

The imprecision of the location and the nondescript, insubstantial nature of the paper used to form the silhouettes create a dynamic within the work that depends on the interpretation of the viewers. Walker’s installations are meant to be understood as subjects that are created as “outcomes of a mediation between a desiring onlooker and the available forms.”[xli] Thus, these works are fundamentally about the act of looking. Black bodies have historically been the site of medical study and experimentation as well as of exhibition without the consent of the subject ever being taken into consideration.[xlii]Additionally, in the West’s construction of the African American, their bodies have been a site of both violence and erotic fantasies.[xliii] In his article for Oxford Art Journal, “Transgression, Excess and the Violence of Looking in the Art of Kara Walker,” David Wall argues that in Walker’s silhouette installations “the act of looking is unavoidably aggressive and transgressive in its utter disregard for the privacy of the body, and forces us into a voyeuristic complicity in the ‘violent hatred and sexual obsession.’”[xliv] Taking this into consideration, viewing these installations becomes a continuation of the history of intrusion on the African American body. These works not only raise the questions of what is being looked at and why it continues to be relevant but also how the viewers have been granted the power to act as observers. One scholar has posited that Walker’s primary audience is herself, as she tries to grapple with the complex and contradictory nature of her subjectivity in a society that has a long history of devaluing people of her race with constructed fictions.[xlv] Though compelling, this argument speaks to a biographical reading which ignores all the larger social and historical implications of Walker’s works. The installations prove to be enlightening for all viewers, regardless of where they fit into the racial landscape of the United States, as they explore their own subjectivity by thinking about their interactions with others and with a broader history. By viewing race relations in terms of these interactions, the installations highlight the performative nature of race inherent to the conception of racial difference.

Walker’s silhouette installations use the discursive nature of materials along with specific material attributes of the silhouette form to convey a long and complex history of racial representations and racial oppression in the United States and indicate the prevalence of race issues in contemporary American culture. By drawing attention to the craft of silhouette production and the power dynamics present in the act of looking she draws attention to the fact that race is constructed. Its constructed nature points to its performative nature in that the racial construct relies on the societal performance of racial expectations on a day-to-day basis. In the lack of visual cues offered by the silhouette, the viewers’ ability to understand the scene unfolding reveals their complicity in a racist society. The two works discussed in this essay draw on popular antebellum literature in addition to representing the figures using common stereotypes of the antebellum period. In this way, Walker places herself directly in dialogue with a history of the representation of slavery. Within these works, Walker provides a platform to discuss slavery and its enduring effects on contemporary American society.

[i] Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 12.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] David Wall, “Transgression, Excess, and the Violence of Looking in the Art of Kara Walker,” Oxford Art Journal 33, no. 3 (2010): 279.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Charles Molesworth, “Kara Walker: Her Enemies and Her Brothers,” Salmagundi no. 158/159 (2008): 6.
[vi] Molesworth, 8.
[vii] Wall, 282.
[viii] Arlene R. Keizer, “Gone Astray in the Flesh: Kara Walker, Black Women Writers, and African American Postmemory,” PMLA 123, no. 5 (2008): 1650.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Darby English, “A New Context for Reconstruction: Some Crises of Landscape in Kara Walker’s Silhouette Installations,” in How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 81.
[xii] Keizer, 1656.
[xiii] Shaw, 49.
[xiv] Ibid., 51.
[xv] Ibid., 52.
[xvi] Ibid., 42.
[xvii] Ibid., 20.
[xviii] Ibid.
[xix] Ibid., 19.
[xx] Molesworth, 4.
[xxi] Shaw, 23.
[xxii] Molesworth, 7.
[xxiii] Shaw, 27.
[xxiv] Ibid., 54.
[xxv] Ibid.
[xxvi] Molesworth, 3.
[xxvii] Shaw, 20.
[xxviii] Kara Walker and D.C., “Riots and Outrages,” in The Georgia Review 64 no. 1 (2010): 59.
[xxix] Shaw, 38.
[xxx] Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Towards an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” in Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28 no. 3 (2003): 809.
[xxxi] Walker and D.C., 59.
[xxxii] Wall, 286.
[xxxiii] Shaw, 65.
[xxxiv] Ibid., 43.
[xxxv] Ibid.
[xxxvi] Alisa Swindell, “Challenging Consumption: Kara Walker’s Keys to the Coop,” in Gastronomica 5 no. 2 (2005): 7.
[xxxvii] Ibid.
[xxxviii] Shaw, 39.
[xxxix] Ibid.
[xl] English, 76.
[xli] Ibid.
[xlii] Wall, 286.
[xliii] Ibid., 282.
[xliv] Ibid., 285.
[xlv] Keizer, 1670.

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