Kara Walker’s new exhibition ‘Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First’ at Victoria Miro is one of the best shows this year. Comprised of sketches, paintings, and her trademark paper-cuts, the show is vast and yet everything feels essential.
The sketches contain fragments of highly-politicised text, with titles such as ‘I THRIVE IN CONFINEMENT’, that add an extra level of unsettling narrative to the already evocative images. The paintings are complex and gore-filled as is to be expected from her characteristically dark work but the most exciting of her pieces are upstairs and envelop an entire wall.
Her paper-cuts confront the viewer with life-sized depictions of ‘blackness’, and the political and social problematics of such a description. These silhouette portraits of imagined characters display greatly exaggerated facial characteristics that have been historically and stereotypically assigned. The hyperbolic stereotype makes overt reference to institutionalised racism and casual preconceptions that remain ingrained.
All manner of atrocities occur in Walker’s works. Alongside the overt investigations of race, Walker’s works are also vocal about class and gender issues and other abuses of power. These are exposed via images of rape, aggression, police oppression, the KKK, lynching, birth, pole dancing, decapitation, war and slavery.
Those oppressed in Walker’s work are not individuals. These faceless faces stand-in for the millions who have suffered similar but unique and personal oppression. By creating faceless characters, she creates a universal symbol that can be applied to many people and across all time periods. Narratives are suggested with no real beginning or end, the timeline is unfixed. The facelessness also interrupts personal empathy, forcing the viewer to observe from a distance. There is no possibility for intervention, we are powerless and we have failed. We have become complicit.
The past cannot be altered but future events can. Walker’s work shows human abuses and failures. Compliments are less useful than criticism and for this reason a cheerful artwork cannot force us to better ourselves. We must be provoked.
The artist’s work is beautiful and difficult to look at, and in its fearlessness it forces us to ruminate. We are a flawed species, we do terrible things to each other and we try to forget. Forgetting is a useful way to suppress painful experiences but there are some things that we must force ourselves to remember so that they can never occur again.
Kara Walker provides this forced remembrance in her exhibition. She gives us humanity by exposing us to a grotesque lack of it.