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Racial Stereotypes and the Art of Kara Walker

Stéréotypes raciaux dans l’art de Kara Walker
Monika Seidl
p. 24-39

Résumé

L’artiste afro-américaine Kara Walker (1969-) travaille principalement sur les silhouettes découpées, forme d’art des XVIIIe et XIXe siècles qui était alors utilisée pour les portraits, les caricatures et la décoration. Un grand nombre de critiques d’art, tout particulièrement Howardena Pindell, accuse Walker de renforcer les stéréotypes raciaux et de ne pas réussir à mettre le présent en relation avec le passé dans son travail. Cet article considère l’aspect humoristique du travail de Walker et défend l’idée que le rire est une pratique spatiale, en tant qu’expérience vécue, qui occupe une partie seulement de l’espace se trouvant entre les stéréotypes raciaux et la vie. Offrir une perspective ludique est une stratégie clé dans un contexte de recherche d’un espace à partir duquel il est possible de critiquer et d’analyser des imaginaires sociaux irréconciliables. La distorsion gênante de Walker se situe dans son insistance à aplanir les corps et donc à leur retirer tout espace, tout en les étalant littéralement en tant que projections sur une surface plane, accentuant de ce fait le coté dramatique du blanc et du noir. A première vue, les silhouettes de Walker semblent perpétuer un code dichotomique de la différence culturelle. Cependant, cet article montre que le troisième espace, celui du rire, exerce une force perturbatrice qui commente la politique de la représentation à partir des stéréotypes eux-mêmes. Cet argument est illustré par son panneau Safety Curtain I qui servit de rideau à l’Opéra de Vienne pendant l’hiver 1998-1999.

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Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle, XXe siècle

Index thématique et géographique :

art, histoire, société, États-Unis
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Texte intégral

1This article comments on transitions, race and the art of silhouetting found at the Vienna State Opera during the 1998-99 season. The stage was screened off by a safety curtain installed by the African American artist Kara Walker, an unusual piece of stagecraft, both functional and aesthetic.

  • 1  A private art association called “Museum in Progress”, which has specialised in the presentation o (...)

2The previous curtain separating the stage from the auditorium had depicted an iconic scene from the Orpheus myth, namely the moment when Orpheus leads his wife Eurydice from the underworld. The figures in this picture were monumental, the mythological couple captured in full stride: Orpheus, leading the way, plays his lute while his gaze is directed heavenwards. Eurydice follows, her eyes averted: she is not yet part of this world. “The World” in this 1955 safety curtain is a stern and austere affair, made up of a number of stylised rocks and hills against the backdrop of large expanses of gold. This safety curtain was the work of Rudolf Eisenmenger, a celebrated artist during the Third Reich, who also carried out commissions for the Austrian state after 1945. In 1936, Eisenmenger was awarded an Olympic medal for painting; in 1942 he won the then prestigious Dürer Preis and from 1939-45, a difficult time, he was president of the Wiener Künstlerhaus. After Eisenmenger’s death in 1995, the then and still current manager of the Vienna State Opera, Ioan Holender, initiated a debate about changing the curtain, thereby cleansing the opera building of a painting which post-war Austria had commissioned from a highly decorated Nazi collaborator. Two years later, the authorities decided to go for temporary solutions: it was ruled that the Eisenmenger curtain should stay and be shown during the summer holidays to tourists, but that, each opera season, another artist should “hide” Eisenmenger’s Orpheus and Eurydice scene. Kara Walker was the first artist selected for this task.1

3Kara Walker’s panel is simply named Safety Curtain 1 and, at a cursory glance, makes a pleasing impression. What seems to be shown is a version of a magic wood executed in the medium of paper cut-outs on white and partly golden surface, which ties in nicely with the auditorium’s colour scheme. The elements composing the image are layered like a stage scene, whereby tall trees with tropical foliage form a proscenium-like area framing the space behind. In the middle ground there are patches of black, white and gold, while snow-covered Alpine peaks and golden pyramids form the background. The space represented is populated by paper cut-out figurines of various sizes, which, because of their varying scale, subvert the notion of realist perspectival space. These figurines allude to well-known representations of Austria in general and to representations of Vienna specifically. There is a version of the Meinl Moor, the logo of a coffee retailer, there is a von Trapp girl, seemingly straight out of Sound of Music, there are snowcapped mountain peaks and there is a replica of the Eurydice from the Eisenmenger curtain.

  • 2  “Entartete Musik” (Degenerate Music) was a propaganda exhibition organised by Heinz Drewes in Düss (...)
  • 3  “There is an image in this piece borrowed from Entartete Musik of a black Jew. The image is especi (...)

4What seems cosy and familiar at first sight turns out to be full of disturbing details on closer inspection: the von Trapp girl look-alike, who lingers in the background on top of an Alpine peak, holds an oversized scythe in her hand. A Hans in Luck in the middle part of the picture wields a sledgehammer and is about to crush a scull. Towards the left of the image, in the foreground, a black musician plays a saxophone, which produces the effect of a grotesque head of a stylised Jew sporting an Osman turban. This image is reminiscent of a well-known poster from the days of the Nazi regime advertising a brochure about Entartete Musik.2 The minstrel-type black saxophone player from the poster wears tails and a top hat and can be easily identified as an inspiration for Kara Walker as is verified in an interview.3 Less disturbing is a Meinl Moor balancing monkey-style high up in a tree. His fez is detached from his head and hovers like a lampshade above him. He has a gigantic coffee bean in hand, which he offers to the sized-down Eurydice from the Eisenmenger curtain, a figure which seems to float in mid-air somewhere close to the Alpine peaks. The combination of all these elements strikes a familiar chord with Austrians, because each figurine seems to appeal to collective memories and the collective unconscious.

  • 4  Kara Walker had her debut show in 1994 at the Drawing Center in New York, USA. Recent solo exhibit (...)
  • 5  For a discussion of the controversies, see Kerstin Kredel, „Blasphemic Blackness! Wie Schwarz darf (...)
  • 6  On Kara Walker and traditions see Kara Walker, “Walker’s Influences”, New York Museum of Modern Ar (...)

5Kara Walker is a very successful young artist, whose work is exhibited around the world.4 Still, her work is highly controversial,5 especially because of the depiction of racial and gender stereotypes, both of which surface again and again in her pieces. Kara Walker likes to draw on traditions6 in her art, as can be noticed in the Vienna safety curtain. A lot of her work alludes to the slave narratives of the American antebellum South and Minstrel shows.

  • 7  Kara Walker in an interview, “Kara Walker. Ill-Will and Desire”, with Jerry Saltz from FlashArt, N (...)

6In this article, I will analyse the nature of paper cut-outs and silhouettes and, in keeping with the theme of transition, the transitional status of binaries, within the context of silhouettes in general and the work of Kara Walker, in particular. The creation of transitional states is, as I see it, typical of the manner in which Kara Walker makes use of paper cut-outs. The artist’s remarks about her medium make a good starting point: “the medium is a blank space, but it is not at all a blank space, it is both there and not there.“7  This oscillation between “not there” and “there”, which Walker uses as a description as well as a characteristic feature of her chosen medium aptly describes and is in keeping with collapse of dichotomies such as black and white or positive and negative, which will be explored in this article. I will argue that the transience and interpretative openness evoked by the medium of paper cut-outs, especially when this medium is utilised by an African American artist, may have fostered the controversies surrounding Walker’s work.

  • 8  Rebecca Peabody emphasises in her monograph on Kara Walker “the interactive nature of Walker’s art (...)

7After the more detailed examination of the fundamental nature of silhouettes, I will illustrate the contested nature of Kara Walker’s art with some examples of response to her work and will end with a section on palimpsest and the Vienna Safety Curtain. The reactions to Walker’s work will exemplify the affective potential of a transitional status and also demonstrate the effectiveness of the medium chosen.8

Kara Walker’s Art

  • 9  During the discussion of my paper presentation at the 31st Conference of the AAAS, Salzburg, 6 Nov (...)

8Most of Kara Walker’s work is exhibited in form of wall installations, which feature tableaux of fictionalised scenes, interweaving fantasy and reality, and which have imagined stereotypes of the Old South at their centre. These scenes do not specifically illustrate any individual slave narratives, but rather provide, from a vantage point of the present, fictionalised documentary records of possible cruel acts and actions of the antebellum period.9 The imaginary scenes are performed by approximately life-size figures and are almost exclusively executed as black silhouettes against a white background.

  • 10  Between the ages of 12 and 22 Kara Walker used to live in Atlanta, Georgia, which houses a famous (...)

9The space within which Walker’s fictionalised scenes are shown generally has no optical depth. What is lacking in optical depth is usually transposed into lateral extension, which is often organised in the form of a cyclorama10, providing viewers with a 360-degree and thus “never-ending” view of the images presented. Cycloramas, I would like to argue, tell stories without closure. Their use in Walker’s depiction of scenes seems to provide the never-ending space necessary for recounting the ghastly, gruesome and cruel episodes from the imaginary image banks of racial exploitation and racial negotiations. What is more, the never-ending story aspect is emphasised by Walker’s depiction of her figures in full motion: all of her characters are in the middle of doing something.

10In fact, flat, black silhouettes depicting scenes against a white background characterise Walker’s work. To convey the message that the racial tensions depicted in her scenes will never come to an end, Walker reduces the illusion of optical depth to a minimum and opts for lateral extension in the form of cycloramas instead.

Gendered status of paper cut-outs

11The aspect of racial tensions, the gendered status and the mimetic nature of the silhouetting are linked to Kara Walker’s artistic message. Silhouettes and paper cut-outs do not traditionally count as works of art but rather as artefacts, as a form of craft. Paper cut-outs have always been appreciated because of the skill needed to produce them, they are thus skill-based and skill-dominated. What is more, during the 18th and 19th centuries, fabricating cut-outs numbered among female accomplishments to fill leisure time, just as did needlework, for instance, sewing or embroidery, or more artistic accomplishments like singing, playing a musical instrument or sketching and drawing. This meant that it was predominantly women who produced silhouettes as a pastime; these were then used to decorate fire screens or lampshades. Therefore, silhouettes have acquired the status of gendered artefacts. What adds to the “weak” connotations of silhouettes is the fact that paper cut-outs do not possess the aura of original works of art. The main purpose of a silhouette is not production but reproduction, and the paper cut-out therefore loses the attribute of being authored. This form of weakness links in with the feminine undertones of the paper cut-out as the product of leisured activity.

  • 11  The origin of drawing or painting goes back to the legend of the Corinthian Maid first found in th (...)

12The gendered aspect of the silhouette is also present in the legend of the origin of drawing and painting, which has a woman at its centre.11 Before her lover leaves for the battlefield this woman makes him sit behind a candle so that she can trace the shadow he casts against a wall. She realises that in this way she will have a memento of him for the time they will be separated. Because of a relationship of resemblance, the outline produced by the shadow is still part of the person depicted although the person depicted is no longer present. Thus the silhouette verifies and authenticates an absent person. The silhouette thus achieves the presence of a non-presence.

13The gendered tradition of the paper cut-out as outlined above emphasises a key aspect of Kara Walker’s work, foregrounding her analysis of gendered inequalities, which focuses on various exploitations of black women during the antebellum period. This socio-political aspect of Walker’s work is further underlined by the juxtaposition of the seemingly inoffensive, even almost endearing features of the paper cut-out and the offensive and disturbing scenes depicted. The attractive and appealing ornamental features of the paper cut-out trigger expectations of harmless gendered leisure time activities, thereby activating a script clashing with the political message, which only reveals itself on closer inspection. On superficial viewing, Walker’s paper cut-outs look cosy, pleasant, endearingly nice; a second look reveals them to be full of distressing and disturbing details, as the description of the Vienna safety curtain has shown.  

  • 12  See Juliane Vogel, „CUTTING: Schnittmuster weiblicher Avantgarde“, in Thomas Eder and Klaus Kastbe (...)

14In this context, the gendered aspect of paper cut-outs is closely connected with the notion of cutting, which can be variously traced in Walker’s art. One might even claim that scissors may be regarded as feminine gendered objects when comparing their shape, for example, to that of knives.12 Paper dolls as toys designed with a young female audience in mind are of particular relevance here. These paper cut-outs foster the idea of fragments: they encourage girls to cut out clothes without heads, or blouses without hands.

  • 13  In the 1770s and 80s, fashionable dress styles favoured a huge backside that went with towering ha (...)

15As a kind of cruel reversal, the hands and heads that are missing from the traditional paper dolls surface in Walker’s silhouettes. In Untitled (2001) a pair of disembodied black silhouettes of hands lies on the floor in the entrance area of an exotic tent, while the rest of the picture is carried out in mixed media in a colourful realist manner. The final image in The Emancipation Approximation (1999-2000), a portfolio of 26 sheets and a cover, shows the silhouette of a woman in despair wearing an antebellum dress sporting an impressive cul-de-Paris13. The woman leans over a block of wood, which has an axe propped up against it. In front of her on the ground have gathered a fair number of disembodied Negroid heads, the spoils of her axe-work.

  • 14 Cut (1998). Cut paper and adhesive on wall. Collection of Donna and Cargill MacMillan, USA.
  • 15 Miss Obedience (2000). Marquette for banner. Museum of Modern Art. New York, USA. Banner displayed (...)
  • 16  It could also be argued in this context that mutilation is the only form of liberation possible fo (...)

16Cutting also features in what Walker labels as self-portraits, such as Cut (1998)14 or Miss Obedience (2000).15Cut represents the bigger than life-size silhouette of a woman in antebellum dress. She is shown hovering in mid-air, her face is directed upwards, her upper-body bends backwards, and both her arms are stretched up high above her head. It is left ambiguous whether the figure is falling or rising. Gushes of blood from her severely cut wrists have already formed two quite substantial pools of blood on the ground, while more blood is swirling around the figure’s up-reaching body. Miss Obedience is a young female figure with Negroid features also depicted in mid-air, this time, however, the figure is clearly falling. One arm and one leg are reaching downward and the face is also pointing towards the ground. Around this person’s wrists are handcuffs. The figure is mutilated because the second arm is severed from the body and appears to come falling after her. The image seems to suggest that breaking free from shackles is only possible through mutilation.16

17Both Cut and Miss Disobedience are provocative images, which can be read as emblems of mutilated African American artistic production. They are highly contested and part of a censorship debate discussed below. In these examples paper cut-outs literally break up into fragments the depictions of racial and gendered inequalities represented.

Mimetic nature of silhouettes

18The mimetic nature of paper cut-outs together with the gendered aspect of the art of silhouetting makes Walker’s art so effective and may account for the negative reactions her work has triggered. Paper cut-outs were particularly popular during the 18th century, when they were primarily produced by women as part of their exhibition of assorted accomplishments. In those days they were also produced by travelling artists as a cheap form of portrait-making catering for customers who could not afford to commission an oil painting. A source of light projected the client’s shadow thus providing a silhouette of the sitter. Like photographs a century later, paper cut-outs in the context of portraits provided a “realistic” representation of the sitter. Thus silhouettes were meant to reproduce not produce. Like photographs a century later, silhouettes are written with light and written in light, pointing towards the literal meaning of the word photography, which is writing in light. Silhouettes are shadows written in light and it is interesting to note that William Henry Fox Talbot, the father of photography, originally planned to call his invention not photography but sciagraphy, writing in shadow, which would have made the link between silhouetting and photography even stronger.

  • 17  A good starting point on silhouetting in general is Marion Ackermann and Helmut Friedel (eds.), Sc (...)

19Silhouettes are closely linked to the old belief that in fixing the shadow of a person, something of this person can be kept. These shadows kept in the shadowy paper cut-out are no mirror images of those being represented, but are more archaic means of representation.17 Still, there are links to photography which endow both media, photography and silhouetting, with a similar relationship to reality: like photographs, silhouettes “only” represent a past presence and thus suggest, again like photographs, that they provide mimetic representations. This close link between silhouettes and photography gives silhouettes and paper cut-outs the aura of authenticity.

20In the context of Kara Walker’s art, this means that through this extra authenticity supplied by the properties of the medium, the cruelties depicted also seem to be more real. In the same way as the gendered aspect of the medium tends to emphasise the feminist agenda of Kara Walker’s art, the close link between silhouetting and photography makes Walker’s messages more powerful and may help explain the emotions that are linked to the negative reactions about her work. In fact, Walker’s purely fictional and fictive quasi-illustrations of slave narratives executed in silhouettes acquire the aura of documentaries as a result of the medium used. It adds to the effect that Kara Walker presents her narratives from the past in the medium of immediacy, the silhouette, that was dominant in the period of history in which her scenes are set, namely the time of the antebellum South.

Dichotomies, Transitions and Race

21The gendered aspect of silhouettes and the type of reality effect they produce, the paradoxical and thus transitional aspects of silhouettes and paper-cut outs are especially effective in the context of the work of a black artist who depicts black people. The contrasts between black and white, body and shadow, surface and depth, easily collapse and acquire transitional status. These issues are closely linked to the representation of what is perhaps erroneously labelled “stereotypes” in Kara Walker’s art.

  • 18  On blackness in excess also see: Michael Corris and Robert Hobbs, “Reading Black Through White in (...)

22Silhouetting illustrates in a very evocative manner the potential for collapse and disruption inherent in binary pairs. Paper cut-outs are traditionally mounted in black upon a white surface. Looking at paper cut-outs from this perspective means that the black cut out works like the positive in photography and what is left is a white negative. The transitional status here works as follows: what functions as the positive, traditionally associated with light, is black and what functions as the negative, traditionally associated with darkness, is white. The result is the two oxymoronic combinations of black positive and white negative, which characterise silhouettes. But further paradoxes and transitional states are involved: the black positive, the paper cut-out, can only be produced through a light source. This means that silhouettes produce blackness only through whiteness. When it comes to Kara Walker’s art, more shifting and transitional meanings are mobilised. Whiteness produces blackness; in the context of the medium whiteness stands for the implied source of light that brings about the silhouette. In the context of Walker’s socio-political criticism, whiteness stands for white people who produce blackness, which means the cruelties represented as paper cut-outs. Silhouetting as a medium clearly over-emphasises black. When Kara Walker as a black artist uses black silhouettes to depict black people, these representations of blacks in black are over-determined and thus provide blackness in excess,18 which may explain the alleged self-incriminating aspect of Walker’s dealing with stereotypes and may be another reason for the negative reactions that her work has triggered.

23The censorship debates that led to Kara Walker’s notoriety in the United States centre on the accusations of “working with stereotypes”. This debate has to do with diverse notions of stereotype and with the dismantling of dichotomies explored above. Everyone involved in the debate agrees that stereotypes serve epistemological purposes; stereotypes try to make the unfamiliar familiar. To employ a Freudian concept, stereotypes endeavour to come to terms with the uncanny; they try to make the unheimlich heimlich. Stereotypes are thus neither inherently negative nor positive as their meaning depends exclusively on the uses they are put to. The voices mentioned below, which dismiss Walker’s work, regard stereotypes as false representations which have to be eliminated.

  • 19  The campaign was started after Walker was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant. For (...)
  • 20  The sensitivity of the topic of the wet-nurse in the US can also be shown with an example from the (...)
  • 21  When considered in the context of the European image bank, the group can also be read as a version (...)
  • 22 Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, 2000 and constantly updated, <http://www.ferris.edu/htmls/ne (...)
  • 23  “Culture Shock”, Public Broadcasting Service, 2000, <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/index_1. (...)
  • 24  Despite this poll, the Public Broadcasting Service included a section on Kara Walker in its art 21(...)

24Anti-Walker activities include the 1997 letter-writing campaign initiated by the African American artist Betye Saar. This campaign was followed by a conference at Harvard, which addressed the sensitive issue of re-cycling racially stereotypical images in contemporary culture.19 Among the most contested images numbers a group from The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (1995), which shows three black women and a black baby suckling each other’s breasts. These women evoke memories of the racial stereotypes of the Mammy and wet-nurse20 and thus stand for the idea of black women providing nourishment for the white.21 The offensive image from The End of Uncle Tom surfaces on an Internet page maintained by Ferris State University (Michigan)22, which provides a rich collection of depictions of racial stereotypes. Kara Walker’s group of mammies surfaces among a random selection of mammies ranging from a music box depicting a mammy-scene from Gone With the Wind (1939) to the mammy-logo used for Aunt-Jemima products. As I see it, what the Jim Crow page neglects is the fact that the stereotypes presented in Walker’s silhouettes change their normative character through simple re-framing. In Walker’s art, the allusions to well-known stereotypes are not positioned within their familiar frame (such as a mantelpiece, or yet another Christmas screening of Gone With the Wind). The stereotypes are rather positioned in an environment labelled as “art gallery”. Still, the debate lingers on: is re-framing a political act or does it simply mean the re-circulation of crude characterisations in places where they are normally not shown? Another example, which illustrates the wide range of the controversies, may be relevant here: an Internet page hosted on a site maintained by the Public Broadcasting Service, a Boston based Educational Channel23, carries an opinion poll over whether rather Leni Riefenstahl’s films or Kara Walker’s installations should be shown in public. According to the results quoted, Leni Riefenstahl turns out to be more acceptable. Users are advised not to deal with Kara Walker’s art in an educational context.24

25The debate about stereotypes should be considered together with the dichotomous pair of “surface” and “depth”. Then surface and depth become another binary that collapses and acquires a transitional status when considered in the context of the medium of silhouetting and paper cut-outs generally and in the context of Kara Walker’s art in particular. A statement by Kara Walker about herself supports this point, as it makes the nature of stereotypes more explicit:

  • 25  See footnote 10.

I figured out that I was a milestone in people’s sexual experience – to have made it with a black woman was one of those things to check off on your list of personal accomplishments. That already has a slightly masochistic effect: to have just been the body for somebody’s life story. I guess that’s when I decided to offer up my sidelong glances: to be a slave just a little bit. […] So I used this mythic, fictional kind of slave character to justify myself, to reinvent myself in some other situations.25

26This is the description of a transitory state between positive and negative, black and white, and in this case desire and disavowal. Walker fashions herself as reified slave, thereby assuming a subject-position that simultaneously works as a site of oppression and a site of desire.

  • 26 The Emancipation Approximation (1999-2000). Here faeces are carried out in white against a dark gre (...)

27There are a number of examples from Kara Walker’s art that feature sadistic pleasures, such as cut-up bodies, polymorphously perverse sexual configurations, or piles of faeces26. All these perversions come in the cosy, endearing form of silhouettes. The medium Walker has chosen therefore almost functions like a fetish that makes the desires as well as the cruelties and atrocities depicted more acceptable, or to stay with the Freudian pair, the heimlich turns out to be unheimlich after all.

  • 27  For a discussion of surface vs. depth, see David Joselit, op. cit.

28In accordance with the above-mentioned surface–depth model, one can argue that silhouettes flatten selves into types and therefore emphasise the idea that people may exclusively exist as images for others.27 When this group of people is black, these images can be exceptionally cruel, and the pressure can be very strong, in fact so strong that all that is left is flatness. In this sense Walker’s constructions of subjectivity do not follow a model of subjectivity as depth, but through the choice of her medium the artist rather celebrates a model of subjectivity as surfaces, as a model of the self which is constructed through an interplay of surfaces. Normative notions of the stereotype are very closely linked to models of subjectivity, in which subjectivity equals depth. These models metaphorically see the body as a container, where deep inside something variously called the core self, or the soul, stays hidden, waiting to be discovered. Any artistic medium stressing the idea of surface, such as the medium of silhouetting, seemingly does not fit the model of subjectivity as depth. Therefore it may happen that fictionalised stereotypes represented in the medium of silhouetting, a medium which emphasises flatness, are regarded as particularly degrading as they also seem to devaluate the idea of the core self. Walker’s silhouettes may be also seen as offensive because they deny a good many things: they do not promise redemption in suffering, they equally do not point towards virtue in victimhood.

29Kara Walker’s art tells black stories by someone black, which are framed by whiteness in excess. First, they are told literally in the space of whiteness, which is the background on which the silhouettes are mounted. Secondly, they are also framed by the whiteness of the predominantly white art establishment. Within this new framing the stereotypes may acquire the added value of parodies in the sense of comic re-cycling of existing material. Thus Walker’s stories may be regarded as parodies in the old sense of the word, namely parodies as “counter-songs” that supplement, adapt and appropriate versions of well-known stories cut from the American collective image bank. Walker’s “stereotypical” stories are thus not repetitions of the same, but repetitions with a difference.

Palimpsest

  • 28  On palimpsest in the postcolonial context see Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Ke (...)

30These repetitions with a difference also work with the items taken from the visual archives of the Viennese collective image bank depicted in Kara Walker’s Safety Curtain, which also displays many transitional features that are closely connected to the repetition of the old curtain with a difference. This aspect of the composition can be best conceptualised with the help of the notion of palimpsest, utilised in its literal as well as in its metaphorical sense, whereby the latter addresses a form of intertextuality.28

31First, Walker’s Vienna safety curtain is literally constructed as a palimpsest, and a very shine-through one at that, as it has kept traces of Eisenmenger’s curtain painting, which have been “overwritten“ by Walker’s curtain. In this way, the theme of hiding the Eisenmenger curtain during the opera season is built into Walker’s version. Eisenmenger comes through via the golden background, in the figure of Eurydice and in the saxophone player’s allusions to Entartete Kunst, a notion which metaphorically refers to the days of the Third Reich, the heyday of Eisenmenger’s fame. These traces of earlier “inscriptions” remain in Walker’s curtain as palimpsest, in the sense of continual features, which draw the past into the present and make the past become effective in the present, by emphasising that the present experience of a hidden safety curtain contains traces of the past which cannot be erased and which remain part of the constitution of the present. Therefore Walker’s curtain may be called a transitional work of art, which is always in flux, simultaneously showing and hiding the past that lies underneath. The curtain covers the real in its double meaning, at once showing and hiding it. Walker’s curtain thus makes explicit that the teasing out of traces of features left over from the past is an important part of understanding the nature of the present.

32The importance of this insight will be illustrated by two examples, one from the curtain itself, namely the appropriation of the Meinl Moor, the other from a review of the “new” curtain, published in an Austrian newspaper in 1998.

  • 29  See Jean-Leon Gerome, Moorish Bath (1870) or Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Odalisque with a Slave(...)
  • 30  In the context of a safety curtain for an opera building, the depiction of the Meinl Moor naturall (...)
  • 31  See <http://www.meinl.com/ (website last accessed June 2008). Most of Meinl’s products now feature (...)

33In Walker’s curtain, the Austrian icon of the Meinl Moor is represented as a sensual eunuch in the company of the scaled-down Eurydice figurine lifted from the Eisenmenger painting. In this version, Eurydice has left Orpheus and has chosen the Moor, his coffee bean, and the pleasures of the other. This combination of white goddess-like woman and black eunuch evokes and alludes to well-known 19th century versions of orientalism29, in which black people were used to reinforce white female beauty, and heighten the white woman’s sexual appeal.30  The Meinl Moor is still in use as the logo of the Viennese coffee retailer. To avoid any allusions to racism and die-hard stereotypes connected with notions of orientalism, the company’s logo has, however, undergone changes in recent years. In English, the German Meinl Moor is called the little coffee boy and has the colour of his faced changed from the positive, from black, to the negative, to white. This happened when Meinl opened a coffeehouse in Chicago in the late 1990s.31

  • 32  „Plattes Graphik-Design, wie es sich jedes bessere Hotel in Kenia oder auf Mauritius hinter den Ba (...)
  • 33  „Weshalb nicht gleich den bewährten Begriff ,Niggerkunst’ verwenden? Nur keine falsche Scham” (Ulr (...)

34While the coffee retailers desperately try to erase traces of orientalism and traces of blackness from their logo and at the same time try to keep the same image in a “white”, politically correct, version, one review article of the curtain did not even give political correctness a try. Writing on the curtain in a conservative Austrian daily, Hans Haider criticised “[its d]ull graphic design, such as can be found stuck behind the bar of every single slightly upmarket hotel in Kenya or Mauritius”.32 This rather bold and degrading statement was even too extreme for the equally conservative German daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In a review article Ulrich Weinzierl countered ironically: “Why not just use the tested term ‘Niggerkunst’‚ (nigger art)? Just drop the act, please“.33

35Haider’s evaluation was shared by a number of voices from the public. The following comment comes from a note left at the opera building the night the curtain was first shown:

  • 34  „An den Staatsopern-Direktor! Wie man sieht, ist die Staatsoper zum afrikanischen Dschungel-Theate (...)

To the director of the State Opera! As one can see, the State Opera has degenerated into an African jungle theatre. Why were an American artist and international jury required? Austria would have been capable of such a farce all by itself. Contemptuously, (signature illegible).34

36Similarly, a letter to the editor of Die Presse sent in by Dr. Herbert Orlich of Vienna read:

  • 35  „Wenn schon ideologische Gründe zu einem neuen Vorhang zwingen, dann sollte dessen Gestaltung an d (...)

If indeed ideological reasons demand a new curtain, its design should be reminiscent of the great European tradition of the Vienna State Opera rather than an Afro-American still life. We Europeans have enough worthy motifs at our disposal, and we do not depend on digging around in a dusty chest of US-American junk.35

One wonders whether Orlich has ever spared a thought for the figures depicted.

37The story of the Meinl Moor in Walker’s curtain and as logo of the coffee retailer and the extracts from the derogative reviews have made explicit that the traces left from the past still have very powerful effects today. Racism still has as powerful a hold on people as it used to have in the days of Eisenmenger’s greatest successes. Dealing with racial stereotypes in a playful, subversive way and transitional way, as Kara Walker does, has made these traces visible.

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Notes

1  A private art association called “Museum in Progress”, which has specialised in the presentation of contemporary art within public spaces, is in charge of the Vienna Safety Curtain Project. “Safety Curtain” is an exhibition series conceived by Museum in Progress in collaboration with the Vienna State Opera House, which transforms the safety curtain into a temporary exhibition space for contemporary art. Seven projects have been completed since 1998: Kara Walker (1998-99), Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler (1999-2000), Matthew Barney (2000-2001), Richard Hamilton (2001-2002), Giulio Paolini (2002-2003), Thomas Bayrle (2003-2004) and Tacita Dean (2004-2005). An international jury (1998-2003: Kasper König, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Nancy Spector; 2003-2007: Daniel Birnbaum, Akiko Miyake, Hans-Ulrich Obrist) selects the artists, whose work is then exhibited at the State Opera House during the opera season. See “Safety Curtain”, Museum in Progress, 1998, <http://www.mip.at/en/projekte/24.html> and Kathrin Messner and Josef Ortner, Museum in Progress, <http://www.mip.at> (websites last accessed June 2008).

2  “Entartete Musik” (Degenerate Music) was a propaganda exhibition organised by Heinz Drewes in Düsseldorf on the occasion of the Reichsmusiktage (22.5.1938) commemorating the 125th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth. The main character of Ernst Krenek’s opera Jonny spielt auf (1925), who is a black saxophone player, inspired the cover of the brochure. See Albrecht Dümling, “Entartete Musik”, Homepage Dr. Albrecht Dümling, <http://www.duemling.de/EM-Info.htm> (website last accessed June 2008).

3  “There is an image in this piece borrowed from Entartete Musik of a black Jew. The image is especially interesting to me given the rift that has emerged lately between American Black and Jewish communities who have long shared an interest in human rights as well as a shared history. Now we’ve got Black sects claiming to be the ‘True Jews’ and discounting the other Jews as imposters [...] This hybridization of Blacks, Jews and Turks is especially interesting to me, because it means never having to say you’re sorry. It’s like [...] I don’t think I can say that without being burned alive [...] skip it. But I included the entartete musik jazz spieler to contrast the divine music of Orpheus whose Euridice marches off to investigate this seductive coffee” (Kara Walker in an interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “Everything can be pictured in the form of shadows. Conversation with Kara Walker”, Museum in Progress, September 1998), <http://www.mip.at/en/werke/195.html> (website last accessed June 2008).

4  Kara Walker had her debut show in 1994 at the Drawing Center in New York, USA. Recent solo exhibitions include: 2002 — Moving Pictures, New York, USA: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; For the Benefit of All the Races of Mankind (Mos’ Specially the Master One, Boss), An Exhibition of Artifacts, Remnants and Effluvia EXCAVATED from the Black Heart of a Negress, Hanover Kunstverein, Hanover, Germany; Kara Walker, Mannheimer Kunstverein, Mannheim, Germany; Museum Weserburg, Bremen, Germany; Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, Germany; Museumquartier, Vienna, Austria; Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnheim, The Netherlands. 2003 — Narratives of a Negress: Kara Walker Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, Williamstown, USA, 2005 — Kara Walker, Testimony, New York, USA, Brent Sikkema.

5  For a discussion of the controversies, see Kerstin Kredel, „Blasphemic Blackness! Wie Schwarz darf Humor sein? Die ironischen Maskierungen der Kara Walker”, Deutsche Bank,db-art.info, 2002, <http://www.deutsche-bank-kunst.com/art/01/d/magazin-karawalker01.php>  (website last accessed June 2008).

6  On Kara Walker and traditions see Kara Walker, “Walker’s Influences”, New York Museum of Modern Art, 1999, <http://www.moma.org/onlineprojects/conversations/kw_f.html> (website last accessed June 2008).

7  Kara Walker in an interview, “Kara Walker. Ill-Will and Desire”, with Jerry Saltz from FlashArt, No. 191, November-December 1996, reprinted in David Joselit, “Notes on Flatness: Towards a Genealogy of Flatness”, Art History, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2000, 19-34.

8  Rebecca Peabody emphasises in her monograph on Kara Walker “the interactive nature of Walker’s art”. She further argues that “ambiguity is not just something Walker uses conceptually, it is also a state that she affects in the viewer”. Rebecca Peabody, “Re: Walker”, e-mail to the author, 7 Aug 2005. Peabody, however, does not foreground the medium of silhouetting in her profound and lucid explorations of the subject area.

9  During the discussion of my paper presentation at the 31st Conference of the AAAS, Salzburg, 6 Nov 2004, the black artist Sherman Fleming came up with the following highly perceptive analogy: while pictorial representations of the Holocaust have entered the collective image bank of the West, the atrocities committed on blacks during the antebellum South have not. One aspect of Kara Walker’s art lies in the attempt to fill this gap in the collective image bank.

10  Between the ages of 12 and 22 Kara Walker used to live in Atlanta, Georgia, which houses a famous cyclorama representing the Battle of Atlanta, between the Confederates and the advancing United States army during the American Civil War, on 22 July 1864. She produced her own version of the event in an installation entitled The Battle of Atlanta: Being the Narrative of a Negress in the Flames of Desire A Reconstruction (first exhibited in 1995 at the Nexus Contemporary Arts Center, Atlanta, USA).For Kara Walker on cycloramas, see Kara Walker in an interview with art 21, “The melodrama of Gone with the Wind”, Public Broadcasting Service, Kara Walker. Art in the twenty-first Century, 2003, <http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/walker/clip2.html> (website last accessed June 2008).

11  The origin of drawing or painting goes back to the legend of the Corinthian Maid first found in the elder Pliny’s Natural History. Depictions of this subject were especially popular during the late 18th century, for example John Mortimer’s Origin of Drawing (ca. 1771), Alexander Runciman’s Origin of Painting (1773), David Allan’s Invention of Painting (1775) and Joseph Wright’s Corinthian Maid (ca. 1782-85). For further information see Frances Muecke, “Taught by Love: the origin of painting again”, The Art Bulletin, June 1999, <http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0422/is_2_81/ai_55174797> (website last accessed June 2008).

12  See Juliane Vogel, „CUTTING: Schnittmuster weiblicher Avantgarde“, in Thomas Eder and Klaus Kastberger (eds.), Schluss mit dem Abendland! Der lange Atem der österreichischen Avantgarde, Wien: Paul Zsolnay, 2000, 110-130.

13  In the 1770s and 80s, fashionable dress styles favoured a huge backside that went with towering hairdos and was known as the cul-de-Paris or Paris bottom. It was supported by stuffed pads suspended from the waist.

14 Cut (1998). Cut paper and adhesive on wall. Collection of Donna and Cargill MacMillan, USA.

15 Miss Obedience (2000). Marquette for banner. Museum of Modern Art. New York, USA. Banner displayed in March 2000 on the Museum’s Fifty-third Street façade.

16  It could also be argued in this context that mutilation is the only form of liberation possible for African Americans. For a discussion of the issue, see Sabine Sielke, “The Discourse of Liberation, the Deployment of Silence, and the ‘Liberation’ of Discourse”, in Fritz Gysin and Christopher Mulvey (eds.), Black Liberation in the Americas, Münster: LIT Verlag, 2001, 241-57.

17  A good starting point on silhouetting in general is Marion Ackermann and Helmut Friedel (eds.), SchattenRisse. Silhouetten und Cutouts, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2001. For Kara Walker specifically, see Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Seeing the unspeakable: The art of Kara Walker, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004; Ariane Grigoteit and Friedhelm Hütte (eds.), Kara Walker, Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Distribution, 2002 and Kara Walker, Safety Curtain, Wien: P&S, 2000.

18  On blackness in excess also see: Michael Corris and Robert Hobbs, “Reading Black Through White in the Work of Kara Walker. A discussion between Michael Corris and Robert Hobbs”, Art History, Vol. 26, No. 3, June 2003, 422-441.

19  The campaign was started after Walker was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant. For Kara Walker on the letter writing campaign and the Harvard Conference, see “I Hate Being Lion Fodder. A Conversation between Darius James and Kara Walker”, Deutsche Bank, db-art.info, 2002, <http://www.deutsche-bank-kunst.com/art/02/e/magazin-interview-walker.php> (website last accessed June 2008).

20  The sensitivity of the topic of the wet-nurse in the US can also be shown with an example from the aggressive advertising campaign launched by the Italian firm Benetton in the late 1990s. Most of the provocative pictures were photographs, which also founded the fame of the Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani. The images included a young priest kissing a nun, an African guerrilla holding a Kalashnikov and a human leg bone, an image of a blood stained T-shirt and jeans, allegedly from a victim of the Balkan Wars and the close-up of the naked upper-body of a black woman, who holds a white baby in her hands, which suckles on one of her bare breasts. This latter image has allegedly never been shown in the US despite the firm’s declared commitment to provoke reaction whenever possible. A black nourishing a white seems to be taboo within the US environment.

21  When considered in the context of the European image bank, the group can also be read as a version of the Three Graces. See also Rebecca Peabody, “History is a genre»: Ambiguity and Visual Culture in the Art of Kara Walker”, and Rebecca Peabody”, “Re: Walker”, e-mail to the author, 7 Aug 2005.

22 Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, 2000 and constantly updated, <http://www.ferris.edu/htmls/news/jimcrow/index.htm> (website last accessed June 2008).

23  “Culture Shock”, Public Broadcasting Service, 2000, <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/index_1.html> (website last accessed June 2008).

24  Despite this poll, the Public Broadcasting Service included a section on Kara Walker in its art 21 series in 2003. See footnote 9 above.

25  See footnote 10.

26 The Emancipation Approximation (1999-2000). Here faeces are carried out in white against a dark grey background. The background comes in a darkish shade of grey; the people portrayed come as black silhouettes.

27  For a discussion of surface vs. depth, see David Joselit, op. cit.

28  On palimpsest in the postcolonial context see Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies, London: Routledge, 1998, 174-176. The notion of palimpsest was suggested to me in discussions with Alexandra Ganser.

29  See Jean-Leon Gerome, Moorish Bath (1870) or Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Odalisque with a Slave (1849). The paperback version of Edward Said’s Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1979 is decorated with Jean-Leon Gerome’s orientalist painting The Snake Charmer (1870).

30  In the context of a safety curtain for an opera building, the depiction of the Meinl Moor naturally also evokes allusions to versions of orientalism from well-known operas. In a more general sense one could think of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (KV 384, 1782); on a more specific level there is the little moor in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911).

31  See <http://www.meinl.com/> (website last accessed June 2008). Most of Meinl’s products now feature a “white moor”.

32  „Plattes Graphik-Design, wie es sich jedes bessere Hotel in Kenia oder auf Mauritius hinter den Bar-Tresen pickt”, Die Presse, 10 November 1998.

33  „Weshalb nicht gleich den bewährten Begriff ,Niggerkunst’ verwenden? Nur keine falsche Scham” (Ulrich Weinzierl, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 13.11.98).

34  „An den Staatsopern-Direktor! Wie man sieht, ist die Staatsoper zum afrikanischen Dschungel-Theater herabgesunken. Warum mußte eine amerikanische Künstlerin, warum eine intern. Jury bemüht werden? So ein Kasperltheater hätte Österreich auch zustande gebracht. Verachtungsvoll, (Unterschrift unleserlich)“. „Reaktionen auf das Großbild von Kara Walker“, Museum in Progress, September 1998, <http://www.mip.at/de/werke/195.html>.  

35  „Wenn schon ideologische Gründe zu einem neuen Vorhang zwingen, dann sollte dessen Gestaltung an die große europäische Tradition der Wiener Staatsoper erinnern und nicht an ein afro-amerikanisches Stilleben. Wir Europäer hätten wahrlich genug würdige Motive und sind nicht auf einen Griff in die US-amerikanische Mottenkiste angewiesen“, Die Presse, 21 November 1998. (Translations by Jonathan Sharp).

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La Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. VII – n°1, 2009

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Monika Seidl, « Racial Stereotypes and the Art of Kara Walker », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. VII – n°1 | 2009, mis en ligne le 23 juillet 2009, consulté le 15 septembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/810 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.810

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Monika Seidl

Monika Seidl est Professeur des Universités et Directrice des Etudes au Département d’Etudes Anglophones à l’Université de Vienne en Autriche. Ses recherches sont très variées mais elle porte un intérêt particulier à l’image, à la littérature classique et à la culture populaire.

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