Ruckus logo in black letteringImage of a large sail boat being lifted up out of the sea by the silhouette of two giant sized hands against a stormy looking sky. Underneath the water is the barely discernible figure of a similarly large sized human. The colors of the image are muted and nearly black and white but still take on some blue and green hues.
Above: Kara Walker, An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters: no world (2010). Etching with aquatint, sugar lift, spitbite, and drypoint, edition 19/30.
︎ Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati

Kara Walker in Context: Cut to the Quick at the Cincinnati Art Museum


Essay
Kaila Austin


The reopening of the Cincinnati Art Museum after a long (and much needed) Winter Break gave me the opportunity to see Kara Walker’s Cut to the Quick on its last day. A retrospective first displayed at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Cut to the Quick consists of over 80 works from 1994 to 2019. The work included primarily prints, drawings, and paintings, but also incorporated book arts, sculpture, and film. Starting with Topsy (1994), the earliest work in the collection and part of her graduate thesis at RISD, the exhibit puts together work from a broad swath of her career, including the bronze maquettes for Fons Americanus (2019), The Katastwot Karavan (2018), and her Emancipation Approximation (1999), a 26 page portfolio of silkscreen prints rarely seen all together.

I hadn’t seen many of Walker’s smaller works first hand, mostly having experienced her through the large vinyl installations; so the chance to see a broad collection of her prints that encapsulates how her concepts have morphed over the last 20 years was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. Guest Curator Ciona Rouse, author and writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, provides the words that accompany the exhibit, poetry to ground the flurry of emotion that Walker stirs. The Slave Ship Gets Nowhere without The Sea to Carry It* accompanied An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters: no world (2010).

In no world, Walker presents her Black figures flattened and nearly camouflaged by the dark gray sea. Black hands emerge from the water, hoisting a ship into the air; the fingertips play with the edges of the ship almost like it is being inspected, but also like it could be dropped. The stillness of the print plays with this tension, and Rouse pulls inspiration from the story Walker leaves unsaid. Using lines from Walker’s journals, Rouse’s words occupy expansive black walls with small white text, questioning the sea on its compliance and destruction from centuries ago while it sits calm at her feet in the present:

…Will you bite or sting or send me something more serene? With you, I never know. Are you witness? Are you accomplice? Are you forgiven? Come high days of humility, and you simply wash my pits. Come high days of holy, and you baptize my forehead. Come days of your wrath and whip, you flatten my cities. Come days of commerce and cargo, you hold a ship. And once upon a then you held bodies in the bosom of a ship until they leapt. And you swallowed them down. Drowned: these bodies unwanting to be owned... Yet word around town is you are life, sustaining and satiating all that I eat and breathe and be. And every sea in me shifts with the moon of memory. Ancient griefs still haunt me, propel me, lift me …

Rouse provides a brief moment, personal and intimate, to speak about the internal struggles that African Americans must continually reckon with: how the Slave trade forever changed how we engage with something as vital to our existance as the oceans and earth that sustains us. Rouse and interpretive materials provided to navigate families and educators create a sort of grounding, an entry point for discussion. Temporary exhibits give museums the opportunity to speak in voices they aren’t accustomed to hearing, and in a traditional institution like the Cincinnati Art Museum, Walker and Rouse’s work come together to disturb seemingly calm waters.

There was a quiet buzz at CAM when I arrived with my best friend and daughter. It was the first weekend the museum reopened, busier than normal. People having small conversations and laughing with one another, sweet things denied by the pandemic for so long, were especially memorable. And so was the noticeable hush over all of us as we entered Walker’s world. Even in the quietest of her pieces, she performs something like a prophecy, a deeply ingrained connection with history that allows her to look forward into an uncertain, but somehow predictable future.

Cut to the Quick is a powerful exhibition that renders the viewers temporarily disoriented and speechless because the work creates a direct confrontation that we aren’t used to. Even when you are familiar with her work, being submerged in it feels like a sucker punch in a culture where it feels like we talk about slavery and its modern implications only in roars and whispers, nothing in between. In its stark contrast and broad flat images, in balancing history and prophecy, Walker provides you with the simplicity needed to process the difficult history she presents and, in return, demands you look in and pay close attention to what she’s saying, especially when it makes you want to look away.

The narratives Walker presents are rarely discussed in the public space, so, in order to engage with her work, we need spaces that allow us to confront the beliefs that our culture displays as the norm. Using visual devices that are familiar to us like the silhouette and print, Walker skewers the mythologies presented in US history; she shows us an exaggerated, stereotypical myth of Black people in order to expose the absurdity (and inaccuracy) of the stories that we tell in our institutions, no matter the discomfort. As a result, Walker’s work hijacks the narrative of CAM; to see the Cut to the Quick is to change the way the viewer engages with the rest of the museum and the stories it tells us.

Because I came to the exhibit with my best friend, Koren, a home healthcare worker, and my 11-year-old, I decided that we needed time to adjust to the museum space. After a two hour car ride from Indianapolis, neither of them were prepared to jump right into something intense, so we spent our first hour or two browsing the museum. As a historian and exhibit designer, I’m always interested in seeing how museums collect and tell the stories of their community and, in turn, how these stories are exhibited to people like me, who are pulled in by a temporary engagement like the Walker exhibit.

Cincinnati is a museum-forward city; the breadth of their museum culture allows for dramatic reinterpretation of historic spaces, including the Cincinnati Art Museum. Since 1881, CAM has strategically expanded their collection, exhibits and programming spaces to tell the stories of their community. This can be seen in the 2003 addition of the Cincinnati Wing, the 2015 Rosenthal Education Center, extensive renovations that created well lit, open and welcoming spaces and the 2020 addition of the Art Climb, an interactive staircase and sculpture garden. All are attempts to keep people visiting the institution, an increasingly difficult task for museums in the digital age, and they are working. In 2019, over 346,000 visitors came to CAM, the largest in museum history, but how many actually see their history reflected in this space?

The racial breakdown of Cincinnati is nearly an even split with 53% Caucasian and 43% African American. This reality is not reflected within the walls of the institution in its exhibit practices. At times, Black people fade into the background, a backdrop for other conversations, and at worst, they are entirely erased from the narrative arc of the institution. This brings up a very common issue in the exhibit practices of museums across the United States: How is Whiteness performed so that anyone outside of it feels like an intruder? Even in Walker’s exhibit, Blackness is proposed as a variation from the narrative of the institution, and Walker, both unintentionally and omnipotently, takes the ideal of ‘normalcy’ and disfigures it into a shadow of its former self.

Interpreting Spaces 1: Frank Duveneck Guard of the Harem (1880) and Moses Ezekiel Eve Hearing the Voice (1876)

My child has been at my side through every exhibit, course, and lecture I’ve ever given, and as a result, I try to be very conscientious of the stories that are told to them, the process by which we tell them the stories that, in their minds, turn into truth. This question translates in my exhibit practice: how we begin to grow beyond visual trope by beginning to use institutions as spaces for constructive dialogues about race and display in the United States. Generally, proximity in size and shape creates a visual relationship; this is a common tool in exhibit design. Visual relationships between objects allow humans to interpret the world around them and to create narrative storylines that allow us to make sense of all the stimuli that surround us. This story building process often happens on a subconscious level that most people, and especially children, interpret before they’re aware that they’ve done it.

Both Frank Duveneck and Moses Jacob Ezekiel were artists working in the same period and similar subject matter, recording the faces and narratives of the upper class of Cincinnati in the late 19th century. Ezekiel was a Virginia native, a Confederate soldier and the first Jewish American sculptor to gain fame in the United States. After befriending Robert E Lee in the years after the war, he goes on to sculpt the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery (1914), and is a proud Southern Confederate until his death in Rome in 1917; Eve Hearing the Voice (1876) is one of his early works. The painter Duveneck is one of Cincinnati’s favored sons; the son of German immigrants, Duveneck lived a relatively quiet life with his wife and children, training in Europe and leaving a number of works from his long career to the Cincinnati Art Museum before his death. As a result, there is a hall dedicated to his work, beautiful lively paintings of upper class life in the Midwest and Europe.

The Guard of the Harem is separated from the rest of Duveneck’s pieces, but still in a central location off to the right. The dusty green paint on the walls gives a general feeling of calm, an easy naturalness. The walls and pedestals also help to emphasize the Guard, pulling the green out of his cloak and pushing the red curtain back further in the scene; the gold of his frame guides your eye to the brightness of his headwrap and face. In the foreground, in almost perfect perspective, Eve sits in front of him, the Serpent wrapped around her feet, whispering in her ears. Eve, shining from the overhead light, buries her face in the bend of her elbow, her arm outstretched behind her to the Guard, in a fearful position. As she turns away, hair cascades down her back and her vulnerability is met with a stony gaze from the man behind her; the serpent under her feet, the cause of her fear, loses his ferocity once the Guard enters the scene.

The interaction between the Harem Guard, Eve and the Serpent tell a story that has been told over and over again, the narrative told through the exhibit practices of the institution, a story that Walker’s work actively confronts. In alignment with the historical arc of our nation, Blackness is placed as something separate, as something feared. Walker intentionally grasps this narrative with both hands and plunges it underwater, leaving her intentions as hazy and potentially insidious as the stories that we build our collective history from.

Interpreting Spaces 2: The Cincinnati Hall.

My friend Koren came with my daughter and I to CAM. As a healthcare worker, the last three years have been incredibly stressful; I offered to bring her along for a day trip as a quick respite. We enjoyed the bulk of the Cincinnati Hall, the room dedicated to Duveneck, which was lively, open and conversation flowed easily. This covered space, however, created a cramped, visual disruption, set right in the center of the Hall, a clear indication of its importance. When Koren walked in, I watched her tense up, fall silent and turn around to come back to me, saying “That is one of the most uncomfortable experiences I have ever had in my life.” She walked out of the room and around the structure entirely. I had to admit to myself that I avoided that room when I came to visit CAM because the impact on me as a viewer of color is not worth the admiration of the space and its work. The same hush that fell on the audience in the Walker exhibit fills me every time that I enter the space.

The first thing I always feel here is discomfort and confinement; I stand, a Black woman, encircled by white figures who sit at my eye level and gaze at me as pieces of cold, unblinking stone. The closed space makes it difficult to ‘escape’ from and in moments of panic, a natural fight or flight response is triggered, causing the room to feel even smaller than it actually is. In this trapped and panicked environment, even though I understand that I am merely in a museum, in a quiet room, a reflective space, I can feel the reversal of the gaze; the artwork gazes at me and I cannot escape it. Everything else is lost: the delicate blues of the walls, the swirling gold leaf, the beautifully maintained floors and swooping arch, the effect of staring through this space and down into a long open hall that invites you to move forward. All of it disappears and the impact is lost if the viewer is unable to cross through the space without gazing into the vast expanse of history, an ocean I cannot surpass.

If I am this disturbed as an exhibit designer, as someone who challenges myself to understand and grow within this field, how must this space feel to the everyday viewer, especially to the Black and Brown citizens in Cincinnati already displaced from the story of their city?

The Emancipation Approximation, a play on the famed 1863 Proclamation that “freed” the slaves, consists of 26 silkscreen prints, 43” x 33” framed. All 26 are hung side by side around a long, but narrow rectangular space. The display was an example of how her work can fill a space and make you part of the narrative, the story that is still unfinished. Like Duveneck and Ezekiel’s work, proximity in size makes the viewer part of the narrative, part of the logic behind the scale of Walker’s work. Cramped into a small space, much like in the Cincinnati Hall, the images surround you on all sides and you are forced to engage with them at eye level. They demand your attention and focus, but don’t meet your gaze.

The Emancipation Approximation eludes to of the rape and assault of Black women during enslavement and the subsequent destruction of the family and self that comes with this trauma. In the gallery text, the curator states that “Walker alludes to the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, in which the Olympic god Zeus takes the form of a swan to rape the human Leda…. Sexual dominance, trickery, and subjugation reinforce dependency and intimidation while thwarting independence, courage, and ownership of one’s own body.”1 Typical to Walker’s style, the 26 panels surround you, engulfing you in their nightmare like tale, where the story starts somewhat understandable and then descends into something hazy and just out of reach. In a 2003 interview with the artist, Thelma Golden, Deputy Director for Exhibitions and Programs at The Studio Museum in Harlem, goes on to say that the work is best described as “a reflection on the elusiveness of Freedom”,2 a haze that we continue to navigate even as the 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation approaches this year. 

Beginning with the assault of Black women by the swans, the heartbreak of the men, and loss of the child, the silhouettes walk across the panels; are they the same people from the assault scene or have they been radically morphed by their treatment? As the series continues, the narratives descend into disorientation, especially after the shadow puppet figure throws a crown of laurel backward into the previous panels. At this point, half way through the series, the prints change from Walker’s traditional Black on White, to a background of a gray-blue, creating a striking contrast between the white swans that pass through the scene. The swan, who was the culprit in the white backdropped panels, committing atrocious crimes against the Black women and causing visible pain to Black men and children, has suddenly been able to absolve himself of a huge mess by dumping it on the Black man. Black women are exhausted, the men captured in nets, their children discarded. The swans in the end panels, flail around, wearing the heads of their children and while the woman stares forlornly into an unforeseen future, encroached upon by the black faces at her feet.

Walker’s harrowing Black figures present the narratives proposed by CAM in its exhibition practices. She provides a space for Black people to perform in the distorted ways that they have been asked to without having to embody that experience. This is the opposite of the impact of the Cincinnati Hall, where as a Black visitor I am forced to play the role expected of me in real time; I step into a space, I pause, recognize that I do not belong and I remove myself from it with a quick step.  Walker’s work is so disjaring because of the context that it is placed within; a slight of hand that forces Whiteness to come to terms with what it has morphed Black people into. She leans into stereotypes placed on us, she agrandizes them, turns them into a parade, and she marches them through the exact institutions responsible for replicating these stereotypes in their exhibit practices.

Even in their most grotesque moments, the silhouette is a stagnant form, one sided and flat. At the end of the day, art can be left behind with the exhibit, but it can also serve as a moment to reflect on what performances we ask Black people to put on within the walls of our institutions. The impact of Walker's work is the discomfort that I, as an African American walking through an average art museum, a hovering reminder of a past that has rarely made a space for someone like me, a place where I morph into something grotesque, distorted by the hazy waters of history. Special exhibits, however, give us a moment to reflect on our institutions, to engage with the narratives that these outside voices invite us to consider, and to make true changes to our institutions to be in alignment with the communities we claim to be in service of. Kara Walker invites CAM to reflect on the ways that it tells the story of Blackness in its institution, but will they heed her call? Only time will tell.

I am looking forward to returning to CAM for David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History, running February 25th - May 15.

Notes:
  1. Frist Museum of Art, July 23 - Oct 10, 2021. Kara Walker, Cut to the Quick. Gallery Guide, 4.  Nashville, Tennessee, United States.
  2. Albright Knox Art Gallery. October 2003 - February 2004. Kara Walker, The Emancipation Approximation. Buffalo, New York, United States.

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Published with support through the TAUNT First Byline Fellowship.

03.07.2022

Kaila Austin (she/her) is an artist, public historian, community activist and mother of one from Indianapolis, Indiana. She attended Indiana University, working toward a triple major in Art History, African American African Diaspora Studies and Painting. In 2019, she was the recipient of the Association of African American Museums’ Burroughs-Wright Emerging Professionals Fellowship and the American Institute of Graphic Art’s Design + Diversity Fellowship for her work in creating more inclusive and accurate exhibits, histories and displays in institutions in the Midwest. Since 2019, she has run her own historical consulting organization that allows her to work with African American communities and assist them with how to mobilize their histories to save their ancestral spaces in the face of gentrification. Currently, she is a ‘22-’26 Mellon Foundation Working Group Fellow with the Association of African American Museums.



A three panel image that shows three characters. The left most image of a semi nude woman with a tied apron and tied headscarf rendered in white, the center image of a larger then life nude woman being lifted up out of the ocean by several smaller people with ropes, rendered in black, and the right most image of figure dressed in finer clothes, braided hair, and holding a candle, rendered in white.
Kara Walker, Resurrection Story with Patrons (2017) Etching with aquatint, sugar lift, spitbite, and drypoint, edition 7/25.


 Print that resembles a Victorian silhouette portrait featuring a solid black shape of a woman in a dress knelt over clutching what seems like the outline of wings of a white bird, all against a flat grey-blue background.
Kara Walker, The Emancipation Approximation (Colophon and Scenes #23–26) (1999–2000), screenprint edition 7/20.


Print that resembles a Victorian silhouette portrait featuring the solid white shapes of several swans floating in water, two of which have solid black shapes of human heads, all against a flat gray-blue background.
Kara Walker, The Emancipation Approximation (Colophon and Scenes #23–26) (1999–2000), screenprint edition 7/20.

Print that resembles a Victorian silhouette portrait featuring a solid black shape of a woman in a dress leaning against a stump with a ax, floating above a collection of ten or so disembodied head silhouettes, all against a flat gray-blue background.
Kara Walker, The Emancipation Approximation (Colophon and Scenes #23–26) (1999–2000), screenprint edition 7/20.

Print that resembles a Victorian silhouette portrait featuring the solid white shapes of two swans fighting over the solid black shapes of human heads that they seem to be wearing as masks, all against a flat gray-blue background.

Kara Walker, The Emancipation Approximation (Colophon and Scenes #23–26) (1999–2000), screenprint edition 7/20.



Installation view of Kara Walker,The Emancipation Approximation, (Colophon and Scenes #20–25). Photo courtesy of the author.

A long museum corridor with hardwood floors and french rococo inspired wallpaper of blue and gold filigree is flanked down the walls by six stern marble busts.Installation view of the Cincinnati Hall. Photo courtesy of J Miles Wolf Architectural Photography

Museum gallery with hardwood floors and a green wall feature a bronze statue of a nude woman looking down into her arm, and a portrait hands on the wall with a lavish gold frame of a dignified figure looking forward.
Installation shot of the Harold C Schott Foundation Gallery. Back: Frank Duveneck, Guard of the Harem (1880). Front: Moses Ezekiel, Eve Hearing the Voice (1876). Photo courtesy of the author.

Print of a semi nude black silhouette figure from the ribs up, looking to the left, imposed over a gray square and white background, is looking to the left and seems to be wearing a white mask that covers the whole face.
Kara Walker, An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters: savant (2010) Etching with aquatint, sugar lift, spitbite, and drypoint, edition 19/30.


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