Kara Walker

Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) Belfast

An exhibition review by Kevin Burns

Following on from Winter 2013’s curated group-show The Mystery of Tears, the MAC’s present return to the single artist show feels at first like an overexposure. A survey of work new and old by Kara Walker takes up the entirety of the MAC’s spacious galleries, a decision that for Belfast’s main cultural centre is ambitious, perhaps courageous.

In the ground floor Sunken Gallery is a screening of Walker’s film Fall Frum Gace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale. This is a shadow puppet play telling the story of Miss Pipi, a venus-like Belle in the pre civil war American deep south, whose sexual relationship with an agricultural slave ultimately leads to the slave’s mutilation and lynching at the hands of her enraged husband. A history of disappointment has taught me to scoff at cautionary vinyls warning of ‘explicit content’, but the warning at the Sunken Gallery entrance is not unwarranted. The malshapen forms of the puppets are straight out of the canon of racist illustration that is best not described here. The depictions of oral and anal sex occur with a clumsy rhythm that leave one wondering whether this love affair is even reciprocal, enacting an implicit violence. Ostensibly aspiring to represent a narrative of romance, the visual gesture in this work is decidedly masochistic. This coarse handling of tenderness affects a vacillation that runs throughout the work: we know that we are supposed be sympathetic to the black character, and we are, but Walker doesn’t allow us to completely feel that. She holds back from the heroic ‘positive’ light, and deprives us of a familiar architecture for understanding this story of the tyranny of evil men. Fall Frum Grace is a work in which racial studies and gender politics meet, and do not find themselves easy bedfellows.

Dust Jackets for the Niggerati is a series of large charcoal drawings that take up the majority of the MAC’s Tall Gallery. The drawings are conceived as cover-images for unwritten books or essays about episodes of African-American history both well known and obscure. The proposition of over-scale book covers bound in glass frames might be considered a polemic against the maintenance of racial histories, Walker’s decisions in scale and framing suggest a museological identity for the drawings. That there is such caution in the presentation of so violent a collection of images seems to symbolically contain them.

And they are indeed violent. Lynching, rape, contorted, misshapen bodies, stock-characters of the Deep South. They would be even more shocking if you hadn’t just been desensitised by a puppet show of ‘super violence’ downstairs. The Tall Gallery is home to two other filmed puppet-shows: 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America an episodic narrative of the beginnings of slavery and the creation of the African-American identity; Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: Six Miles from Springfield on the Franklin Road that draws on 19th century archival material to unearth a distressing story of one black family’s experiences after being ‘freed’ from slavery. If I sound as though I am giving these works cursory attention, it is for a very specific purpose: to illustrate the increasingly repetitive, depleting value of the subject matter.

To go through this show is to be in constant hope of something different happening, something other than what feels like Kara Walker’s only trick. By the time you get to the new work at the top of the MAC, THE SOVEREIGN CITIZENS SESQUICENTENNIAL CIVIL WAR CELEBRATION, a black-on-white and white-on-black silhouette installation, the mind becomes increasingly concerned with reaching the café back on the ground floor. On the walls of this huge space is a narrative of larger than life cutout silhouettes presenting a vista of Deep South cliché, moving clockwise from celebration to violence and triumph. It reads as an unravelling of cheery nostalgia for the antebellum good-old-days, images of celebration morph eventually into scenes of civil war slaughter and post-war subjugation, but all are unified by Walker’s familiar black comedy. The work refers to Walker’s interest in modern-day nostalgia for the mythological American South, as espoused in many respects by the contemporary tea-party movement within the congressional Republican Party.

But by the time you get there, the moment has passed. It’s all so polemical and there’s so much of it that there is an overall linearity and unanimity of experience. The work doesn’t go significantly anywhere beyond where you expect, which is in itself surprising: Walker leaves us wanting her to do something different but never does, and I wonder if this is in itself important. It could be that Walker’s practice makes a problem of the banal handling of histories, the static assumption of progress. Our histories lead us to believe in our capacity to overcome, to improve,  but in this show the capacity of things to relate to each other independently as artworks presents an autonomous challenge to that conceit. Or it could be that in this supersized monolith of a show Walker’s intense works are overexposed and robbed of their potential, singular efficacy. The truth is probably ‘both’.