At Miami’s Untitled Art Fair this year, we saw Kara Walker’s 'Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats, from the portfolio Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) 2005, courtesy of LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, Columbia University.
In this offset lithograph and silkscreen, (39 x 53 in.) Walker imposes a silhouette in black onto original woodcut scenes published in 1866, giving the whole visual, as well as historic, multi-dimensionality.
Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats, from the portfolio Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) 2005
Black-on-white silhouette art elicits a special kind of visual vertigo. Confronted by a recognizable shape lacking recognizable features, our mind-eye connection is short-circuited by a dizzying oxymoron: a palpable absence. Kara Walker exploits that synaptic misfiring: by overlaying the images from Harper’s Pictorial History with black cut-outs Walker cuts in to history to reconfigure not only the moment but also the experience.
At first glance the composite work is captivating: the figure’s stance suggests a determined bid to escape, even from the Loyalist (ie. unionist, abolitionist) crowd gathering in the background, perhaps even to use the chaos to flee. Her vulnerability is highlighted by the delicate neck, the nakedness of her breast, and the willowy outstretched arms. She seems so likely, we quickly forget she is a modern imposition onto an historical image.
In a flash, we assume the foreground figure is a slave largely because of the stereotypical “Black Mammy” headscarf she wears. We assume she is black because of the profile of her face, with exaggerated lips and flattened nose. And we understand the figure to be a woman, crawling – or perhaps falling – because of her long skirts. Like a vacuum that hates emptiness, our giddy mind is busy filling in the blanks that the silhouette presents to us.
But nothing here is as simple as it appears.
Did we take the time to wonder: if the skirt was enough of a gender clue, why was an exposed breast included? What does it mean? Did we stop to ask: why include the bandanna – an emblem first of enslavement, then later of rebellion – if her physical profile already suggests she is of African descent? Did we go beyond the surface to wonder why the black woman in the background carrying a white child is moving with the crowd or why a black child abandoned to its fate was included at all?
Or did we just get caught in the act of letting our minds leap to just enough clever conclusions about the silhouetted figure to feel satisfied and leave it at that? Do we choose to see any more or any better than the original illustrators?
Because as much as Walker’s work is a re-presentation of the past, it’s an indictment of our present way of thinking and seeing. Walker, however, is too much of an artist, both visually and intellectually, to ram home a heavy-handed message. She’s playing with the viewer, drawing them into a game – not of light and shadow or smoke and mirrors, but of substantial bodies in which the viewer fills in the historical gaps.
The indirect observer – after all, the original event was already reported by someone else illustrating for Harper’s – turns direct participant.
It becomes our role to see and to think, and to question our ways of seeing and thinking, to move beyond the superficial and the apparent, both past and present.
If we decide to remain on the surface, then the game is up.
*Rosvita Rauch is a writer, editor and translator. Her PhD in Comparative Literature from Warwick University, UK, focused on “little” cultural magazines published in Cuba and throughout Latin America in the 1920s. Rosvita writes about literature, art, and cultural production in North and South America.