Martyrdom, Racist Violence, and the Role of Art: Kara Walker’s Religious Turn

Photo of Kara Walker by Ari Marcopoulos

In her most recent exhibit, “The Ecstasy of St. Kara,” the American artist Kara Walker made a turn toward religion, both in terms of imagery and in the understanding of art’s religious function.

A response both to the unbroken American tradition of state violence against black citizens as well as to the backlash against the “Black Lives Matter” movement, Walker’s new religious art indicts Christianity as a system of thought and practice on which American chattel slavery depended. The work takes up the both the longings behind and the brutal ends to African American movements predicated on theologically-tinged concepts such as a sovereignty beyond that of the state and a utopian alternative to this world.

These new works feature a parodic “Easter Parade” of slave revolt and re-enslavement, bleak takes on wall-building (with the walled territory morphing into the hull of slave ship), and tributes to movements such as the 1968 Republic of New Afrika that sought a separate black state within American territory as well as John Africa’s MOVE community (largely destroyed in 1985 with a militarized police action in Philadelphia that destroyed 65 homes).

Kara Walker’s work has always spoken the language of urgency—a visceral, force coupled with conceptual strands that the viewer must slowly unravel and worry through long after seeing the piece itself.

Establishing herself as a major figure in contemporary art in the mid-1990s with room-spanning installations of cut-paper silhouette friezes, Walkers work addresses history in two valences, with the form (a Victorian craft genre, seized and dragged violently into the present moment) rendering explicit the nostalgic and romantic myths we cling to in lieu of actual facts, and the subjects depicted (slavery in similarly mythically-rendered, grotesque scenes, thick with rape and mutilation, fountains of bodily fluid, chimeric figures studded with hypersexualization and scatology).

Walker’s art jolts viewers into two levels of awareness, representing the horrors of history while rendering obvious the impossibility of ever objectively “representing” such horror, yet also making visible the layers of lies—from white supremacy to nationalism to historical amnesia to the lace curtains of gentility and various modes of repression—we insist upon, consciously or unconsciously, to shield us from that horror.

Walker’s early work literally pasted the horror of chattel slavery on the walls, black shadows against white paint.

More recently, she engaged her audience in contemplation of both the history and continuing ramifications of the economic and social norm that was slavery with her monumental sugar sphinx, “A Subtlety,” or “Marvelous Sugar Baby,” subtitled “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.”

Installed in Brooklyn, the show linked that “gentrifying” borough to its own history with the Domino company and, thus, to the transatlantic obsession—linked to the slave trade—with sugar, a crop predicated on the death of those who produced it, a sweetener tainted with the blood of those who died in the violent harvesting and pressing of cane.

As with her earlier work, an ancient form was seized and reimagined as a faux-Egyptian form, with exaggerated black features cast in blindingly white sugar. The sphinx was flanked by child-size figures, some melting away as the work progressed, carrying baskets with the broken limbs of their fellows.

The sweet-smelling scene of horror was given a falsely ambiguous face, that of the sphinx, her features drawn from the annals of racist caricature, with her buttocks and labia angled for display at the back of the sculpture, rising to a height taller than any spectator. There was no riddle here, just an iteration of a persistent and oppressive reality, the link between sexual desire and racist hatred.

Such double dehumanization, only faintly masked by the lace curtains of denial and decorum, was doubly on display at “A Subtlety” as visitors gaped and giggled and posed for selfies next to the sculpture’s massive “white-but-black labia”—a reaction Walker expected and managed to collect, via social media, for a digital archive of the project.

Walker’s new pieces do not offer an invitation to the crass reactions of tourists. Here we have faces screaming in pain, celebrating fleeting freedom, or curled back in death, crestfallen with enslavement. Thick graphite, charcoal, and oilstick render images that at times gesture toward complete black, yet are punctured enough by absence to present an image: an obscure bust mounted on a pedestal labeled “BLM,” or two horizontal forms that, upon examination, are undeniably shrouds, body bags of what Walker labels a “Happy Couple.”

Memorialization of the dead is, according to Walker’s commentary on the work, now a real concern of her art. She speaks in terms of “holy relics,” seeking in her own art “a more authentic representation of the martyred… more affecting than a newspaper photograph or verbal testimony.”

I would argue that Walker’s work has always pursued that “slippery sensation of revulsion and realness that interrupts” a mere aesthetic sense, that she has always worked to subvert beauty. What has changed is Walker’s grounding of that interruption within religion.

Not only is Christianity part of the history of “realness” that must interrupt the present moment, Walker, post-Rome, understands the work of art to have religious precedents, to function in ways best understood via examples from the history of religious practice.

In short, Walker isn’t merely engaging Christian symbols and Christian history, she is now theorizing her work along the lines of explicitly Christian art and its function within church rituals. We need, Walker insists, art that works the way Christian relics of the holy dead work. As she says of this current, righteously disturbing, collection, “Perhaps we cannot bury the dead until justice is realized. Maybe we must carry the rotting bodies of the fallen through the streets.”

This new work—explicitly mired in, critiquing, and yet drawing on Christian traditions, symbolism, and history—represents an attempt to do just that, to parade the martyred through the streets, demanding notice and demanding a transformation of the world.