Last week at Homecoming, we unveiled Kara Walker's Pastoral, a work of art installed in the Woldenberg Art Center through the generosity of one of our alumni, Sanford Heller (BA, 1994). At the unveiling, Dr. Mia Bagneris offered the following explication for Pastoral.
Kara Walker (American, b. 1969), Pastoral, 1998, wall painting in black
“This piece (Pastoral) is a departure from the bulk of my work which is situated in a fictionalized version of the Antebellum South, which is the hub where profane racial mythologies shake hands with the mundane reality of day to day existence in a racially divided culture. This is a quiet little contemplative piece in which a Negress of Renown dons sheep´s clothing, or is dry humped by its filthy little self.”
Born in California but raised in Stone Mountain, GA, home of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, Kara Walker cites her upbringing in a community profoundly invested in the romantic mythology of the Old South as a force that powerfully informs her work. The artist first received notice for her panoramic silhouette installations, dark phantasmagorias evocative of antebellum plantations that confront the viewer with the weight of history, violence, and trauma and their intersections with race, gender, and sexuality.
Walker’s use of the silhouette form is masterful. She explodes the genteel connotations of the medium, presenting the viewer with violent, often brutally sexual scenes of depravity, debauchery, and even defecation. Exploiting and disrupting the silhouette’s indexical quality, Walker presents the viewer with impossibly nightmarish tableaux that, steeped in history, nonetheless have the patina of reality. Expertly, she probes the innate ambiguity of an art form that communicates only at its edges, requiring all information to be relayed in the outlines and forcing viewers to question what they see. Ultimately, Walker does not offer a hopeful vision, but in her brutally fantastic imaginaries, the artist presents a realistic picture of the crippling burden of the nation’s dark past that continues to haunt its present.
Walker achieves all this and more in Pastoral. In a compelling game of visual bait-and-switch, the figure of the Negress—a stock character in her oeuvre—merges with that of a sheep and simultaneously suggests the form of a tree. Does the Negress bear the weight of her ovine burden as a garment? Is she engaged in a bizarre bestial sex act? Will the bloodshed portended by the razor she daintily holds in her hoof-like hand be directed toward herself or someone else? The solitary, introspective figure is, as Walker suggests, somewhat of “a departure” from her more chaotic panoramas. However, the violence and “profane racial mythologies” that characterize her work remain, and Walker delivers none of the peace of an Arcadian idyll that Pastoral’s title suggests.