« The 12th Annual International Women's Day Celebration | Main | Art Is Sexy »

Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love


On Friday, I attended Kara Walker’s exhibit “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love? over at the Walker art center. Her exhibit is the biggest highlighted exhibit at the moment; she’s had a small room of work as a part of the semi-rotating “quartet? of artists, but this showcase included an astounding amount of her work from 1992-present.
Walker is best known for her cut-paper-silhouette technique, which is a play on the classic 18th century art medium. Walker flips this traditional form upside down by portraying subtly striking images (as opposed to the romantic couple or the plantation). A quick glance at the cutouts may not warrant any thought- you might catch a glimpse of a southern belle or gentleman, perhaps of some slaves or black girls in a field near a tree. A closer look reveals a scene full of gendered, sexual and racial turmoil.

Walker infuses her work with images that strive to make the viewer uncomfortable, by challenging our thoughts on inter-racial attraction, heterosexuality, and historical accuracy (to name a few). Images include racially ambiguous women walking in prairie dresses; the only thing out of the ordinary is a baby trailing on an umbilical cord beneath her. Slaves are pictured performing sexual acts on one another, on their masters, and vice versa. What we perceive to be young white boys are having sex with adult black men. One of these instances, a shadow puppet silent-movie was particularly striking—Walker animates her characters in the story of Uncle Remus telling the story of Br’er Rabbit to a young master. The film begins with “Little Timmy? running up to Uncle Remus and begging to hear the story of “Br’er Rabbit?. Uncle Remus laughs and says he’s too tired, Timmy keeps begging, and at this point the viewer still thinks that a story is coming. Timmy then starts chiding Uncle Remus and the story quickly darkens; it becomes clear that this is not about a story, and eventually Timmy forces Uncle Remus to perform sexual acts on him “or else he’ll tell?.
At this point, I was surprised to see that there were still several children running around the exhibit on this first free-Saturday at the Walker. My Dad came with me, and we both agreed that the images shown were inappropriate for the extremely young audience (who said “yay! Shadow puppets!? to the film I just mentioned).
Another image that I found extremely striking was a graphic drawing of a black woman giving birth to a large rat. One image depicts a white woman running away with a black woman’s unborn fetus; another shadow-puppet film depicts a young white boy and young black girl slave having sex, and then reversing their roles as the slaves gain power and begin to whip their masters. Walker achieves success in provoking her audience—I was disturbed by many of the up-front, unapologetic images.
The disturbing ideas presented by the exhibit bring up questions of multicultural feminism and the difference model. If we’re forced to see all of this difference, divide and past unfairness, how are we supposed to consolidate our current ideas and work together on the same plane? Walker addresses this point briefly in her opening statement about the exhibit: “It’s interesting that as soon as you start telling the story of racism, you start reliving the story. You keep creating a monster that swallows you. But as long as there’s a Darfur, as long as there are people saying ‘Hey, you don’t belong here’ to others, it only seems realistic to continue investigating the terrain of racism.?
My expectations for the exhibit were surpassed—I was surprised how moving I found it to be. I’m still very uncomfortable with a lot of the imagery. When I think about why this is, a lot of my past prejudices and beliefs come into play. It wasn’t so much the gender or sex components that struck me—the combination of these and the explicit sexual depictions were what really made me think. Although overtly sexual, most of the images were sort of ingenuine—the sexuality was humorized and demonized (not celebrated). Walker covered many ideas in her exhibit—I’m still thinking about what it all means.


here's a video clip about the kara walker show: