Thursday, January 31, 2008

Whitney Museum: “Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.”

In Before the Battle (Chickin’ Dumplin’), a white man kneeling on one knee holds on to a Black woman’s hips as he sucks on her bare nipple. The woman’s mouth is ajar, as her neck cranes forward and her weight shifts backwards. The image is frozen, with the woman’s hand opening up as she drops a piece of chicken, the chicken still in mid-air. The work, highly erotically charged, leaves the viewer in an ambiguous position: is the woman merely surprised by an act of intimacy? Has a similar act occurred before? Is she participating in the act voluntarily? Yet why must the man hold her hips down as he, completely dressed, touches the woman’s naked body? How much resistance lies in the woman’s body? The title of the work itself suggests this is a moment before battle, but we could wonder: which struggle? Does the piece refer to the Civil War? Is the relationship in the image a moment of relative peace, of union? Or are we witnessing an act of oppression?

The ambiguity of Before the Battle (Chickin’ Dumplin’) is characteristic of Kara Walker’s work and of the entirety of her exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art: “Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.” Walker, born in 1969, spent the first years of her life in integrated California, and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, when she was 13. Here, Walker learned through personal experience about the tense racial relationships still existing in the United States. Walker’s hybrid experience of American culture has greatly informed her work, which looks at issues of race, gender and sexuality without the dualisms common to stereotyping and extremist political views. Just like the title of the exhibit, which brings together four opposing roles into one whole, Walker’s subjects and the relationships amongst them challenge the viewer to see beyond oppressor and victim, good and bad, black and white, man and woman.

The current exhibition at the Whitney brings together a wide range of Walker’s works: from her black silouhette murals, to smaller vignettes, to her short films and wall projections. The museum has transformed a whole floor into a Walker-land, where the viewer is at times encircled by Walker’s figures, and at times brought down to her knees in order to better appreciate the details of a small projection in the corner of a room. This exhibition provides a great coverage of the development of Walker’s career as an artist, as well as a wonderful opportunity to become immersed in her world and experience the rhythms of her visual language for an extended period of time.

Whitney Museum of American Art
October 11, 2007 - February 3, 2008

1 comment:

The Laundromat Tour: said...

What an interesting analysis. When I saw the exhibit I was overwhelmed by feelings of disgrace for white people. Reading your review makes the work much more dynamic and addresses the subtleties in Walker's work that sympathetic viewers like myself, tend to ignore. What a bold and difficult subject.