Does any artist have the right to present racially insulting imagery in their work? This question is an important one in understanding the images produced by some of the leading contemporary African American artists. Black artists work in a variety of media,with subjects ranging from portraiture to Politics, Morality, and social commentary. However the Black artists currently receiving the most attention are those who present racially charged, sexually explicit, and some say exploitative works dealing with past and present day American race relations. Does being the descendant of the very people who were victimized by this kind of racist caricature justify its use by Black artists today? In these politically correct times could white artists present similar imagery and not be labeled racist? Finally, does reinterpretation of painful stereotypes demonstrate freedom of expression or just good old fashioned opportunism?
In attempting to answer these questions the work of prominent contemporary artists Michael Ray Charles and Kara Walker will serve to exemplify the confluence of racist imagery from the past, postmodernist technique and today’s politically correct climate. These artists will also provide both a male and female perspective. Art critics in their interpretation and documentation of the issue of stereotypes in art look specifically to works by these two artists.
Michael Ray Charles is a controversial African American painter famous for his comically exaggerated look at the American psyche as it relates to class and race. Big lipped pickannies, smiling black sambos , the gracious , kerchief wearing presence of Aunt Jemima, watermelon eating, fried chicken loving darkies and the dangerous,violent black thug rapist all hail from an era of unbridled racist expression. The work of Michael Ray Charles takes full advantage of the power of such stereotypes. Generated out of the romanticized notions of the antebellum South, and the shaky self-delusion,guilt, fears and violence of early American white supremacy, this imagery, although suppressed, is still with us “like some hibernating virus waiting for the right environment in which to spring to life” .
The right environment may already be here as evidenced by the resurgent popularity of these images as expensive collectibles purchased by both Whites and Blacks. Americans often collect racist art as a form of nostalgia, a reminder of simpler times free of today’s political correctness. Due to apparent progress in American race relations,some of these nostalgic collectors feel that is now safe to bring long hidden racist imagery out of its dark closet. They insist this imagery is too ridiculous to offend andshould never be taken seriously. Some African Americans collect these objects forother reasons. Many Black collectors seek catharsis, as if the images call up memories that are just too painful to be dismissed. The need to remind twenty first century Blacks of the heavy price paid by their ancestors in days gone by provides additional motivation for these collectors. Indeed Charles’s paintings have an old worn look to them. This he does intentionally. He thinks such treatment is beautiful in a way. It’s as if the artist is digging, discovering something buried deep in a cave. He likes things that have a “history” to the surface. Charles’s paintings go through a process of being broken down and eroded. He says it is this erosion that places his works in a time frame that is neither here nor there.
Charles sees a world at war in terms of class and race with the battlegrounds being Politics, Economics, and Education. In the words of film maker Spike Lee “this artist uses words and images as weapons”. Charles sees American Blacks as commodities,an idea which obviously harkens back to the painful experience of African American enslavement. However it is no longer the physical body that is coveted, but the buying power of the Black community that is valued. Economically, Black America is among themost exploited societies on earth. The slots in the heads of many of the figures in his paintings push forward the view of African Americans as money making machines designed for the benefit of another community. African Americans, like all Americans,are constantly bombarded with insipid commercial imagery urging them to buy products which are emblematic of the “American Dream”. This is why each Michael Ray Charles series reads like an outrageously insulting advertising campaign. Personal experience with the world of commercial art has produced an artist who is painfully aware of the persuasive power of image.
A major series of Charles’s work entitled “After Black, Before Black “ recall a series of nineteenth century Currier and Ives engravings. For this series Charles creates a diptych in which a male protagonist with caricatured African features seems to suffer in both the before and after images. In the “before” image he is running in fright, eyes bulging, and about to run into a tree labeled “white only”. In the image labeled “after” he is arrogantly dribbling a basketball while blindfolded with dollar bills and is about to run into the same tree. This series, seems to fall back on the cliché “the more things change the more they stay the same”, implying that African Americans are a hopeless, hapless lot. The tree of course, represents the real life limitations placed upon a Black athlete who is caught in the fantasy world of pro sports fame. With all of his money and success he can only aspire to so much. The blindfold is symbolic of his blind ignorance of this fact, according to Charles.
Of course Charles is not the first artist to meditate on the social impact of visual racist code. Painter Robert Colscott is known for his reinterpretation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, and David Hammons has also appropriated classic black imagery from antique commercial sources. The painter Betty Saar has also experimented with Aunt Jemima, arming her with a rifle to reflect Black revolutionary thought. Indeed artists of Charles’sown generation, Kara Walker in particular, have covered the same territory. His Southern background (he was born in Louisiana) in combination with his commercial interests contribute to a continuing fascination with the lingering effects of a tragically absurdist visual tradition associated with a series of racist assumptions. To accuse Charles of simply borrowing imagery would be wrong. He creates new symbols in his work. Even though his work realizes the full potential of Sambo, Mammy and Aunt Jemima imagery he recombines these volatile characters with contradictory phrases, contemporary cultural interjections, and a variety of comic slogans. In this way the artist has created a devastatingly effective visual shorthand.
Kara Walker is another controversial African American artist. Like Charles her work is scathingly satirical, but with a relentlessly sexualized tone. Kara Walker uses humor and a pair of scissors to remember and dismember and come to terms with a past as it relates to the present.present. Walkeris quoted;” One of the themes in my work is the idea that a black subject in the present tense is container for specific pathologies from the past and is continually growing and feeding off those maladies. Racist pathology is the muck”.
Walker’s use of black and brown silhouettes has become her signature. Their origin can be traced to eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, later becoming popular as a middle class “ladies art” in the American South. Ironically it is to the antebellum South to which Walker turns for her disturbing narrative. She sees that particular time and place asa world of deep, but largely unfulfilled social yearnings and desires. These desires manifest themselves in destructive, abusive and bizarre sexual relationships. This is brought home in an installation of silhouettes called “Gone, An Historical Romance of Civil War As it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Negress and Her Heart” , her very first silhouette work. Inspired by her own reading of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind” this work examines the romantic relationship between a White slave master and his Black female servant. She found Mitchell’s story to be engrossing and titillating as well as grotesquely melodramatic. It is this melodrama, according to Walker which effectively hides the novels’ racist overtones.Walker used the silhouette here because it “lends itself to avoidance of the subject”, in the same way America chooses to ignore certain aspects of its romanticized past.
The silhouette medium has historical ties to Black Americans because it was sometimes used as a means of identifying individual slaves in profile, mug shot fashion. This is part of the invisible memory of the form Walker has grabbed for her self.This medium is a complex one, allowing for a multiplicity of readings while not favoring one over the others. The silhouette itself is as intricate as Walker’s overall project. It is pristine yet painful; it is thoroughly modern and obsolete. In Walker’s hands the silhouette is a critical tool, one which is used aggressively to expand the debate on race and its representation. This usage is a far cry from the polite art of Southern ladies. Walker’s silhouette minstrel shows “methodically execute a chain of exploits ranging from sexual insatiability to ravenous sadism and auspicious idleness”. This artist’s work increases the stereotypical value of the silhouette and in the process frees it from its history by making it impossible to forget where those stereotypes come from. Instead of attempting to control negative representations of African Americans Walker intensifies them, accelerates them, inflates them, and runs with them to narrate stories where pain and pleasure meet.
Walker’s imagery is and always has been seen as something which deviates from the norm. Her work is known to be offensive and upsetting and sometimes titillating. In 1999, at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, some of her works were removed from an exhibition following complaints from the institute’s African American advisory board. She has been accused by certain critics, including Black artist Betty Saar, of making pornographic images. Saar wrote a round-robin letter to over two hundred artists and politicians denouncing the “negative images” produced by the young African American artist Kara Walker. Citing her own use of stereotype in her “Liberation of Aunt Jemima” she portrays, in Saar’s words “the domestic worker as both a caregiver and warrior”. By contrast she says Walker’s work is pornographic imagery intended for the titillation of a white audience at her own people’s expense. She accuses Walker of “selling us down the river” and caring only about the money and fame her work brings.In her scathing critique Saar references “TV, Rodman and Rap” as symbols of a black youth culture out of its mind in the pursuit of money. Especially troubling to her is the use of stereotypically black sexual imagery, and its display of black flesh. Her primary objection to this work seems to be its “embarrassing” sexual content.
Some have come to the defense of Walker’s images. Henry Louis Gates, director o fAfrican American research at Harvard, noted “only the visually illiterate could mistake their post modern critiques for realistic portrayals, and that is the difference between the racist original and the post modern, signifying anti racist parody that characterizes this genre of artistic expression”. Parody can be used for more than merely highlighting an issue, in the words of Sander Gilman “it can provide an alternative reading of those persistent cultural images that float about in our unconscious”.
Betty Saar claims that Walker’s work reveals her character. How we feel about an artist does indeed influence the way we read that artist’s work. Is Walker too young, too pandering, too close to the white art establishment, too desirous of fame, and therefore undeserving of the status she has attained? Saar would answer yes and sheis not alone. An anonymous essay in the International Review of African American Art makes the following comment on a 1997 showing of Walker’s work in Chicago. “It is hard to imagine an artist – who realistically and repeatedly depicts sexual molestation,hyper sexuality and bizarre excretory functions of little white girls – receiving the same excited praise that Walker gets”. Ironically, the commentator ignored depictions of little “white boys” suffering sexual molestation appearing in the same show. There are also counter examples from other highly praised exhibitions of the same year. The Royal Academy’s Sensation exhibition included Jake and Dinos Chapman’s display of “little white” children with pink genitalia displayed on their faces while being groped. In the end we have to remember that these images are merely images and not actual children.The medium, whether of silhouette or cartoon provides a clue that we are not dealing with the real world here.
Art critics such as Barbara O’Brien seem to have a firm grasp of this concept. She noted in her 2003 review of Walker’s show at the Williams College Museum of Art that “the traditional indicator of race – skin tone- is removed from the visual clues …the narrative is the prime activity of the installation. We believe that we can judge age, gender, race and class by body mass and form … [yet the] ambiguity intentionally creates a sort of Rorschach test for each viewer”. It is this ambiguity that haunts all imagery.
The imaginary of course is a very dangerous place, imagery like Walker’s attempts to give concrete existence to our cultural nightmares. It is the aim of some artists to rip the veil off of our collective subconscious and expose its contents for all to see. And it is our job as viewer to recognize how much we share in these thoughts. Racism is just another nightmare in which we share, and this is not merely a problem for the “white racist”. Walker’s imagery is indeed sexualized, confrontational and racist, because the entire Western world shares in these images as part of our waking dreams and nightmares.
In the search for answers concerning the works of Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles critics and lay people alike tend to get so caught up into speculating whether these artists are deconstructing stereotypes or playing the system for personal gain they tend to overlook the artfulness (or lack thereof) inherent in the work In fact there is artistic merit for the body of work presented by these two most famous and controversial artists, but this may not matter at the end of the day. True enough one could argue that they are more well known for being controversial than for the work itself. Their work, like all great art is effective on a level beyond just the formal elements of design and composition. The content of this art deals with something that truly matters. Both of these artists manipulate racist symbols to speak to us in ways we may find uncomfortable. They both reveal hidden truths that lie just beyond our consciousness, something we are normally not aware of until we see it placed before us in all of its ugliness.