Spreading fear and mayhem in the visual arts.

Kara Walker's "My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love"

Posted in Exhibitions / Openings / Signings, Historia & Memoria, Interna by Suzanne on March 1st, 2008 | BBC Wikipedia

Kara Walker in front of two of her works

About a decade ago, when I was first confronted with Kara Walker's work, I felt a very strange mix of emotions, similar to what I felt when I got lost in West Oakland and got this overwhelming feeling of "being the minority" and having committed a prenatal crime or the helpless anger I felt when I was held back by Serbian border patrols in Subotica who - understandably - didn't care much about my Swiss passport that looked just as fake as an NSK one and spoke neither English nor German nor French.

Anyway... so I looked at Kara's work and I felt this archetypical guilt again and found that I was actually trying to force myself to dislike it.. because it was oh so wrong to "like" it.. but it just wouldn't work.

But what I felt was intense... it felt like having to vindicate myself for being born on the wrong/right side of things. For having some kind of unjustified birthright I didn't do anything for. For belonging to the fortunate half of humanity and therefore being the cause that the other half is less fortunate.

When I asked myself why her works felt so familiar to me, I realised that they reminded me of a little graphic that I often stared at in my grandma's house (and that I think is still hanging there on the neatly tiled wall in the toilet, a little left of the washing basin).

It was an old cracked simplified 4-panelled 30s graphic showing a little naked black boy (he was neither African, nor Afro-American.. he was just black. Pitch-black. #000000) with big blood-red lips, golden Creole earrings, shiny black curls around his happy heart-shaped face, huge happy eyes and ridiculously bright teeth and he was showing me how to correctly brush my teeth. I don't think he was wearing a bone in his curls or pierced through his septum, but you get the general idea.

Because the little black boy (who seemed to have no worries in his life apart from keeping his happy white teeth shiny for me to look at) fascinated me so much, it remained my favourite corner of her house for a long, long time (mainly because I was terrified of all the dusty Catholic devotionalia in her house... above all the crucifix with the purple silk scarf around an emaciated Jesus hanging above the dinner table and who - I was convinced - would eventually fall down on my head and pierce my brain... which is why I always wanted to sit at the end of the table).

Cotton Hoards in Southern Swamp by Kara Walker, 2005

I must have been around the age of 7, when I learned from my primary school dentist (who always carried a huge red toothbrush, a massive plastic jaw and yucky Elmex gelée that should have tasted of strawberries but didn't) that the little black boy's circulating brushing technique was actually totally wrong and that we all must immediately switch to the amazing red-to-white technique that he demonstrated on his monster jaw with his giant toothbrush of doom.

However, I still liked looking at the happy little naked black boy, but at the same time, a feeling of guilt and shame crept in and I began to realise that there were no people like him out there and that - just like my other friend, Uncle Ben - he was nothing but the white fantasy of the careless, brainless black boy and that I couldn't look him straight in the eyes if I ever did meet his human-like template.

It's shocking to see what power certain iconography can have on our subconsciousness and that it takes maybe a lifetime to fight against the visual stereotypes of your childhood. But it's an important struggle.

A few years later, when I saw the protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics on TV, I got that overmastering feeling of empowerment, commitment and responsibility that I still get whenever I see people oppose and revolt for a just cause. The feeling you get when you're demonstrating with a crowd of like-minded people and become one giant thousand-armed & -legged ball of power. One fist.

So I was spellbound when I saw their clenched fists and their eyes turned towards the ground. And I cried. I sat there crying alone in front of the TV because I knew that they'd never see this little white kid crying for and with them and I'd never get to tell them that I am sorry for everyone who was never sorry in their lives and that I felt responsible.

I feel tempted to go back to my granny's house and stick a tiny clenched fist over the little naked black boy's toothbrush.

Kara Walker's My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love show is opening tomorrow, March 2, with an artist talk at Hammer Museum in L.A.

Artist talk: March 2, 4 PM, with Kara Walker & Gary Garrels (chief curator)

On show: March 2 - June 8, 2008

Address: Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90024, tel: 310.443.7000 | Map

View selected works

Watch video interview with Kara, 2007

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7 comments to " Kara Walker's "My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love" "

  1. Gravatar

    mmgilbert says:

    The Walker show was at the Whitney prior to its opening at Hammer and there was a contemporaneous show at The Met in NYC. In NYC, people who go to exhibits at the Whitney somehow look like the art that is being shown. Walker is using anger well.

    March 2nd, 2008 at 11:18 pm

  2. Gravatar

    Suzanne says:

    Uhmm.. I'm not sure I fully understand the direction or implication of that 2nd last sentence, but then again, I've never been to the Whitney myself.

    March 2nd, 2008 at 11:31 pm

  3. Gravatar

    peacay says:

    I felt this archetypical guilt again

    I dub thee an honorary Australian.

    We are of course now guilt free now and absolved of all mismanaging of indigenous matters for time in memoriam. Prejudice has evaporated from the landscape. Black & white people skip down every street arm in arm every day.

    Kangaroos deliver fosters beer cans instead of milk too.

    March 6th, 2008 at 8:26 am

  4. Gravatar

    T. Crane says:

    I love her work. Saw it at the Tate Modern in London, and now I think she's got an opening here in Sf. Incredibly powerful imagery.

    March 13th, 2008 at 12:04 am

  5. Gravatar

    Jen says:

    All my granny had in her bathroom was a plastic Barbie doll with a knitted skirt that was used to cover the spare toilet roll.

    To get the spare roll, you had to stick your hand up her skirt and pull down the paper.

    Quite what psychological impact this has had on generations forced to defrock Barbie as part of their bodily expulsions I have no idea.

    All I know, is that an empty toilet roll holder still makes me shudder with delight ;-)

    March 13th, 2008 at 4:43 pm

  6. Gravatar

    Suzanne G. – Giving Taste A Bad Name Since Kindergarten» Blog Archive » Kara Walker at Lehmann Maupin and Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York says:

    [...] Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats by Kara Walker, 2005 – click to [...]

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