Walker#039;s ambiguous art is not black and white

by Beacon Staff • October 31, 2007

As dark as a black hole, and just as unsettling, is the fallen silhouette of a young girl with a noose tangled around her neck, contrasted against a stark white background. This is the first image seen when entering the exhibit Kara Walker: Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) at the Fogg art museum at Harvard Square in Cambridge.

Walker's exhibit is a haunting commentary on the idea that racism was not abolished during the Civil War, but solidified. Black and white illustrations taken from the 1866 publication Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War, are interrupted by Walker's tortured silhouettes of slave figures placed over them. The placement of her own black silk-screen cut outs of slaves over the illustrations make intense statements of war, slavery and racism.

The profiles have exaggerated features, and they are either positioned right in the middle of the drawings or seem to be walking off the illustration onto the white border of the work.

The silhouettes are often troubling, and portrayed in disturbing positions and situations. Next to each painting is a simple description of the event represented in the illustration, which only reinstates the lack of emotion in the text itself compared to the illustrations eclipsed with Walker's creations.

Some of the works show only parts of the body torn from the whole, such as one piece called "Buzzard's Roost Pass," which is an illustration of soldiers on horses in the mountains firing a cannon.

What makes this picture unsettling is the deep black shadow of a head, arm and two breasts which all seem to have been ripped from the body of a young black girl.

A couple of works in this collection show similar silhouettes portrayed this way. In "Scene of McPherson's Death," a young black boy waves goodbye to his leg, which appears to have been torn off his body and carried away by a small man. He does so in front of the drawing of a battle scene, where bodies lay in the brush and a wagon is overturned.

This small-silhouetted man makes numerous appearances in other works throughout the collection as well.

Another interesting piece in the collection, "An Army Train," delineates an older black woman lies dead in front of a scene of horses and carriages. Rising from her body is a cloud of black smoke in the shape of a rodent that reads "Souls." She is discovered by another profile, a boy with a large straw hat carrying farming equipment.

By far, the strongest image in the gallery is the image of the girl with a noose around her neck labeled "African/American."

The title alone is important because as the annotation explains, the backslash seems to separate the words rather than bring them together. The alarming in-your-face quality of death and torture immediately sets the tone for the rest of the exhibit.

Kara Walker's show states a very obvious, but important, opinion about racism and the Civil War. Anyone who walks into the gallery will immediately feel the deep emotions that have come out of this milestone in our country's history.

However, Walker's unique presentation of these frequently-documented and well-known events and emotions make the exhibit particularly noteworthy.