Refocusing history

Black lives matter in Kara Walker's annotated lithographs.

click to enlarge Kara Walker, Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats from Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), lithograph and screenprint, 2005 - The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, 2013.34.162
The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, 2013.34.162
Kara Walker, Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats from Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), lithograph and screenprint, 2005


Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated). Through Mar. 3. HCC's Gallery 221, 4001 W. Tampa Bay Blvd., Tampa. 813-253-7386. hccfl.edu/gallery221.

Do Americans scrub their histories, white-washing them to portray a cleaner multicultural America? In Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), Walker appropriates original imagery (early 1860s) from Harper’s Weekly, a political magazine with news, essays, and illustrations about the war. She carefully places stereotypical African-American silhouettes on top to tell the full, unabbreviated version of America’s history in the 15 lithographs on display at HCC's Gallery 221 in this exhibition organized by the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College.


click to enlarge Kara Walker, Confederate Prisoners Being Conducted from Jonesborough to Atlanta from Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), lithograph and screenprint, 2005 - The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, 2013.34.159
The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, 2013.34.159
Kara Walker, Confederate Prisoners Being Conducted from Jonesborough to Atlanta from Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), lithograph and screenprint, 2005
Viewing these pieces in person, you notice the slight nuances of darkened silhouettes against the subtly lighter black of the background scenery, which you miss in digital images. Because the gradient shift is so minimal, the African-American figures teeter on the edge of sliding back into the obscurity of the dark-shaded lines of the background. At the same time, these cut-outs also block the action in the original Harper’s white-washed version of the war. In Confederate Prisoners Being Conducted from Jonesborough to Atlanta, she places a large silhouette of a black man’s head directly in the center of the print, where one imagines prisoners would be. The white figures in the background surround the superimposed cutout, looking upwards – but at what? Are they aware of the floating head, or staring at something behind it, out of our view? With these silhouettes strategically overlaid on the focal points, creating ambiguous dialogue between characters in the foreground and the background, Walker deconstructs our notions of history from marginalized perspectives.

Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated). Through Mar. 3. HCC's Gallery 221, 4001 W. Tampa Bay Blvd., Tampa. 813-253-7386. hccfl.edu/gallery221.

Internationally recognized, Kara Walker continuously garners both support as well as controversy because of her unabashed use of racial stereotypes in her body of work. In spring 2014, she stirred the world up with her solo exhibition at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. A Subtlety (also called the Marvelous Sugar Baby) centered on the mammoth spectacle in the middle of the factory: An African-American woman in a sphinx pose, confected out of 30 tons of sugar. While there’s not quite enough room for a sphinx "Sugar Baby” at HCC, visitors are treated with three small resin models, called maquettes. Walker used these to create the life-sized sculptures, cast in resin and coated with molasses and brown sugar, of the African boys surrounding the sphinx in A Subtlety.

The intimate, quiet setting of Gallery 221 flatters Walker’s narrative prints, creating an engaging space for these suppressed stories. Accompanying Walker’s prints and contributing to the power of her exhibition are three original Harper’s Weekly illustrations in the enclave before the gallery. Viewing Winslow Homer’s A Bivouac Fire on the Potomac in proximity to Walker’s prints turns the stomach. Another nice curatorial touch is the display of five photographic works by Jack Leigh on the wall across the gallery entrance, all depicting the varying and unique experiences of African-American life in the south.

Clearly, not all voices get heard equally, as evidenced by Walker's annotations to Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats. As the masses run toward incoming boats with excitement, the shadow of an enslaved woman takes advantage of this moment to escape. Scrambling away, her body mimics the crawling position of the small African-American child who seems to be following closely behind her.

Kara Walker’s work comes to Tampa as the Black Lives Matter movement gains support from people of all backgrounds. Her works compel the audience visually and offer questions to consider. While standing in front of these works and reflecting on them, you can’t help but notice your own reflection in the glass protecting the art, especially in sections with large swaths of black-outlined figures. Confronting your own image, reflected in soft color, in Walker’s annotated history, shown in black and white, creates a torn moment of being transported to the past while witnessing the past in
the present.

How much has changed since then? Are players of vital cultural importance still being subjugated? Walker asks us to challenge ourselves with regard to stereotypes, and shows that African Americans are more than just a footnote in America’s dense history. 

click to enlarge One of the most striking pieces is “Buzzard’s Roost Pass." Walker places pieces of an African American woman’s body on top of the scene; her two breasts are separated from her body and splayed wide like legs being pried open, with cannon balls exploding between them. Her decapitated head seems to be in motion from being shot at, with her head swung back with a cry as the army penetrates her. The digital images here do not do Walker's work justice. - The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, 2013.34.155
The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, 2013.34.155
One of the most striking pieces is “Buzzard’s Roost Pass." Walker places pieces of an African American woman’s body on top of the scene; her two breasts are separated from her body and splayed wide like legs being pried open, with cannon balls exploding between them. Her decapitated head seems to be in motion from being shot at, with her head swung back with a cry as the army penetrates her. The digital images here do not do Walker's work justice.

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