Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 18, 2008
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004. 208 pp.; 10 color ills.; 34 b/w ills. Paper $21.95 (0822333961)

In Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw contextualizes the production and interpretation of Kara Walker’s fantastical depictions of slavery as produced in installation silhouettes, prints, and drawings between the years 1995 and 1998. Through five well-paced chapters, Shaw investigates the personal and art-historical origins of Walker’s art, analyzes three of Walker’s most dense and widely-circulated silhouettes, and addresses the passionate and complex reception to Walker’s challenging images.

At the beginning of her text, Shaw reveals her own stunned reaction to seeing Walker’s artwork for the first time in 1997. Following her encounter, Shaw immediately sought any information available about Walker’s art including meeting the artist herself. As Shaw describes, “I wanted to understand better how she [Walker] could tap both the latent and the virulent racist icons of the visual and textual past in order to make her audience ‘see the unspeakable’” (5). Shaw calls on the work of literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to connect the practice of signifying in Walker’s art to a much longer tradition of doublespeak in the African American literary tradition. Walker’s depictions of life on the Southern plantation exemplify doublespeak in that they provide enough visual data to enable viewers to identify familiar character types in their respective time period and location, while the alteration of physical characteristics and the presentation of the characters’ inhumane actions disturb many viewers and push Walker’s visions from the pseudo-objective “truth” of the silhouette into the realm of science fiction and fantasy. Shaw argues that the analysis of recollection and revision as signification in Walker’s “nostalgic postmodernism” (5) is an important tool for understanding Walker’s unspeakable art.

In chapter 1, Shaw provides a biographical sketch of Walker and a historical examination of the silhouette that connects Walker’s chosen form to its roots in racial science, nineteenth-century physiognomy, and perception as faithful recorder of truth. Particularly fascinating is her analysis of Moses Williams, nineteenth-century cutter of profiles, who altered his self-portrait silhouette to downplay its marking of racial blackness. Shaw designates Williams’s self-modification as a practice of signifying that places him as a predecessor to Walker’s revised visual forms of “rememory.” Shaw also contextualizes Walker within an African American art world of critical production. Like Carrie Mae Weems, John Sims, Beverly McIver, Michael Ray Charles, Faith Ringgold, and others, Walker’s critical practice depends upon satire and includes volatile racist symbols such as the mammy, coon, minstrel, master, slave, and Uncle Tom for effect. Shaw argues that Walker also continues an African American avant-garde tradition that is mostly unconcerned with receiving communal approval from other African Americans. Like artists before her who take representational risks by not countering “negative” images with “positive” ones, Walker fights fire with fire and presents subject matter that is dangerous and unstable.

In her second chapter, “The ‘Rememory’ of Slavery,” Shaw breaks down the literary and historical references for Walker’s The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (1995). Through the lenses of psychoanalysis (Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud) and gothic literature (Toni Morrison and Edgar Allan Poe) Shaw argues that Walker’s life-size silhouettes are akin to shadows cast by the collective unconscious and by death. Walker’s The End of Uncle Tom depicts the superego gone wild as an expression of repressed guilt. Although it is not explicitly stated, Shaw’s discussion of the role of psychoanalysis in Walker’s work seems focused exclusively on White, liberal viewers and does not account for the lack of guilt that Black viewers may feel in the presence of The End of Uncle Tom. Shaw paraphrases W. J. T. Mitchell’s argument that Morrison’s novel Beloved “reveals a psychical process of disremembering the trauma of slavery, of repressing a horrible experience that can never be truly known, in order to remember what can never be fully understood” (42). Morrison’s process of disremembering reflects her ancestral inheritance of a particular historical experience of slavery and an identification with the stories of Black women slaves who survived and resisted. Shaw states that, “Walker takes a deficient history that is both visual and textual and re-members it in a way that calls forth the ghosts from our collective psyche” (43). Because of this marked specificity of “re-membering” for Morrison and Walker, I question the assumption that there is a collective psyche of slavery across racial and gender lines that could include White guilt and Black resistance. A closer examination of “the ghosts from our collective psyche” would reveal a recollection too disjointed to be named as our collective. Without this further analysis, Shaw’s chapter reveals the limits of the application of psychoanalysis to account for the complex reception of Walker’s tableau.

Shaw’s historicization of the segments of The End of Uncle Tom constructs a well-grounded cross-section of the visual text and its signified meanings. In her discussion, Shaw reads the dense layers of connectivity between the first figurative silhouette in this specific work and slave narratives, the value of the female slave body as wet nurse, sexual transgressions of heteronormativity, and the disruption of the nurturing role of enslaved Black mothers. Walker displays the slave’s multiple and contradicting identifications with the master, the simultaneous desire to both kill and please, to consume and embody the enemy. Yet Walker’s authorial position is ambiguous. As Shaw argues, “Is the creator of The End of Uncle Tom the young African American woman artist Kara Walker, or is it ‘Missus K.E.B. Walker,’ the persona responsible for the Negress Notes drawing series and one of the various signifying pseudonyms that Walker has assumed in her work?” (51)

Shaw’s analysis elucidates one of the most valuable aspects of Walker’s compositions: the impact of slavery on White people. She explains that, “Violence against the other is really violence against the self” (54), and demonstrates the masochistic and sadistic practices of masters and mistresses in Walker’s work. As sadist, the master in The End of Uncle Tom is supported by the young Black female slave whom he crushes and depends upon for hierarchical power and sexual pleasure. Walker’s representation of this act shows their bodies unified as the female’s body becomes one of the master’s limbs. The subject matter for the next section of the installation is Black and White paternal lines of what Shaw identifies as “mulatto” children. In The End of Uncle Tom, bi-racial children symbolize death and excrement writhing on the ground as helpless human waste.

Shaw ends her chapter by arguing that no one is innocent in the “rememory” of slavery and that, “each viewer is prompted to face his or her potentially traumatic relationship to history and acknowledge whatever potential guilt and complicated feelings he or she might have about any personal relationship to slavery” (64). Although this may adequately describe the experience of some viewers, a critique of the inequality of power between the races, White terrorism, and the pervasiveness of slave resistance both psychologically and physically in the daily life of slaves would add greater depth of possibility to this analysis of trauma and complicity. This additional discussion may further contextualize the disturbing impact of Walker’s compositions by highlighting the differences between what has already been spoken and Walker’s unspeakable world.

The focus of chapter 3, “The Lactation of John Brown,” is Walker’s 1996 gouache drawing of White abolitionist John Brown depicted as a feminized elder whose nipple is painfully stretched in the teeth of a young Black child held by his mother. Walker’s John Brown contrasts nineteenth-century popular and fine-art depictions of Brown by White Americans as “white savior/martyr” (68) and African American folk hero. Walker’s drawing changes Brown’s legendary kiss of a Black baby on his way to his hanging and instead places the baby in the position of sucking, pulling, and biting Brown’s nipple. Shaw reads Walker’s John Brown as a criticism of these earlier renditions of his last moments before death as well as of the possibility of interracial family in the imagination of White nineteenth-century artists. Shaw effectively argues that Walker points to the lack of sustenance Brown was able to offer to the nation of enslaved Blacks he fought to free by transforming him into a “masochistic black mammy” (84). Shaw examines Walker’s source materials in her discussion of the drawing—along with artworks that depict Abraham Lincoln, the other great nineteenth-century White patriarchal martyr—in relationship to newly emancipated slaves.

Through her gesture-by-gesture analysis of John Brown juxtaposed with these other interracial scenes involving Brown and Lincoln, Shaw crafts a powerful and thorough chapter that effectively demonstrates how this work critically intervenes into the discourses of White patriarchal power and depictions of interracial sexual relations in the nineteenth century. Her discussion of the choice of moments from Brown’s life that African American artists Jacob Lawrence and William H. Johnson chose to depict in the 1940s provides additional insight into the visual discourse of Brown as subject extending from the mid-nineteenth century through to Walker’s representation.

In chapter 4, “Censorship and Reception,” Shaw addresses the intense reactions to Walker’s art by art institutions, private collectors, and conservative African American artists and art organizations. Indeed the call for censorship around Walker’s art received nearly as much attention as the art itself, which in turn created a widely circulating hype relating to Walker’s artistic practice and success in the late 1990s. Shaw succinctly addresses the central friction of these debates: “Cultural constructions of the African American imago as hypersexual, lazy, and brutal subhuman creatures still permeate racial discourse in the United States, and Kara Walker’s representation in her images of perverted whiteness challenges the limits of what is tolerable to a community striving to overcome the impact of two centuries of negative imagery” (105). Shaw contextualizes condemnatory reactions to Walker’s work with a discussion of similar outrage in response to the art of Robert Colescott. Without placing blame, Shaw discusses multiple perspectives in response to Walker’s artwork and presents issues of censorship and reception in relation to Walker herself, her artistic persona, and her artwork as ongoing challenges stemming from the larger discourse Walker has created.

In her fifth and final chapter, “Final Cut," Shaw examines the artist’s self-portrait silhouette Cut (1998). An animated image of ecstatic suicide, Cut depicts Walker as a female figure jumping in the air with childlike joy. Her hands dangle from mostly severed wrists spurting blood in feather-like forms that pool on the floor below. Shaw reads this mixture of pleasure and pain as an expression of Walker’s experience in the art world in particular and the world in general as a Black woman—the raced and gendered “‘other’ of the ‘other’” (130). Locating in Cut a second profile of a pointed-faced man raising his hand beneath the female figure’s skirt, Shaw suggests a commentary on the directed orchestration of her figure by this shadowy force. A comparison between the interracial coupling in Cut and the relationship between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat leads to a discussion of authenticity, White patriarchal power, agency, and control for young, talented African American art superstars like Basquiat and Walker. Shaw also examines strategies for self-definition undertaken by artists Edmonia Lewis and Glenn Ligon who, like Walker, attest to the problem of further becoming racial spectacles as African American artists.

Shaw has created a useful and readable text that provides entry points into understanding Walker’s art and the discourses surrounding it. Her excavations of the various aspects of Walker’s work are carefully written and engaging to readers who are familiar with African American history, culture, and art history as well as those who are learning about these sources for the first time through Walker’s art. She has managed to organize a truly unwieldy subject, allowing it to maintain its dynamism while discussing it in a digestible fashion. Seeing the Unspeakable is a fascinating study of Walker’s art and a model for further examinations of the challenge of contemporary art.

Bridget R. Cooks
Associate Professor, Department of African American Studies and Department of Art History, University of California, Irvine