Historical Buzzkill

Posted November 25, 2008 in Arts & Culture

So . . . the election is over. And while there are still a few holdouts to change—those Waco-esque diehards who believe their country has been usurped by the over-educated (yes, this is considered a slam), the liberals and the blacks—the majority of us, no matter how we voted, can at least acknowledge that a shameful wrong that was done to our black citizenry, while not erased, has at least been amended. Even The View’s resident Palin-loving bimbo can get on that bandwagon—and that’s saying something.


And this made me wonder, as I admired Kara Walker’s new exhibit Annotating History at the Pomona Museum, what black activist artists are feeling. Walker, who was listed as one of the 100 most influential figures in the arts by Time Magazine in 2007, is an historical activist artist, in fact—one who lives not in the century of the Iraq war, but rather in that of the American Civil War, a war that while not prevalent in most of our daily thoughts, remains, as Walker says, “a war that everyone is interested in.” 


To bring this war back to life and ripen it for commentary, Walker has extracted wood-engraved sketches from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, a two-volume set of bound weekly papers, published in 1866 and 1868 after the war had ended. During the war, Harper’s Weekly served as the nation’s eyes and ears on the conflict, and since the paper took no stance on the slavery issue, its readership climbed to over 300,000 as people in both the North and South picked it up each week to read not only news updates and editorials, but more importantly, see the on-the-spot sketches created by the Harper’s artists who traveled to battlegrounds across the nation.


Using these enlarged sketches as her background, Walker adds what is missing in the scenes—a lot of slaves, and the true horrors of slavery—in the form of the silhouette cutout, a popular middle-class art form in the 18th and 19th centuries. With these large, black construction paper representations, Walker shows enslaved Africans in various modes of action, reaction and destruction, effectively adding the other, invisible side of the story.


The approximately 48”x36” sized pieces range from merely sad to sickening. In the Harper’s sketch of Buzzard’s Roost Pass Battle, for example, we see Union and Rebel forces in the background, blasting away at each other without much blood or guts, yet in the foreground, Walker adds a decapitated slave girl head, her severed hand and severed breast. Insert mournful expletive here. In another more picturesque sketch of a forest, a large slave shadow hops along over the scene with one of his legs missing a foot; a smaller, mini-slave follows along after him, carrying the mangled appendage.


While not all of the work is so gruesome, it all has emotional baggage, with the cutouts resonating as a series of ghosts or memories, hovering above what the eye can see, and reminding us of what it cannot.  


In the adjacent room, Walker’s water colored inks on the subject are on display and are even more graphic, intimately detailing the rapes, mutilations and humiliations endured by slaves at the hands of white masters—all drawn in a perversely entertaining cartoonish caricature that would be fit for a child if not for the content. I don’t even want to tell you what nastiness Mr. Lincoln is involved in—because even I just can’t go there.


And so I was intrigued, walking among Walker’s work, in awe of her technique, message and vision, and yet wondering what our recent national developments might do to her—and to her message. Such a monumental historical change certainly doesn’t alter the past—nor should it erase it. But will it change the vigor with which it is expressed? Will it soften the lens even a bit? Should it?  So many questions. In the same vein, I’m looking forward to hearing the next crop of rap songs. Can anyone, no matter how enraged by history—even recent history—not somehow be swept up by the electrifying wave of hope that is now propelling us forward? Do I need to come down from my idealistic high and get real? Really?


Ben Dean and Kara Walker at Pomona College Museum of Art, 333 N. College Wy., Claremont; www.pomona.edu/museum; Hours: Tues.–Fri., 12-5PM; Sat. & Sun., 1–5PM. Closed Mondays. Thru Dec. 21. Free



Imagination with Borders

Dean’s Account illuminates the beauty of pure structure


While checking out Walker’s super-charged pieces, don’t miss the exceptional, experimental work of Ben Dean in the front of the museum—especially his projection installation of 16mm footage he shot at three San Francisco-area locations, synchronized next to a projection of digitally-rendered images of the same structures, sans people, trees and movement. Seeing the “real” footage and its computer-generated “skeleton,” for lack of a better word, is simply fascinating—the digital form almost seeming as if it were the perspective from another plane in the same dimension, or perhaps a post-neutron bomb version of the world. If you’re a structure-art nut like me, you should be especially pleased. 

–Stacy Davies





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