Kara Walker challenges racism in provocative exhibition

Kara Walker beside her work, Sketch for an American Comic Opera with 20th Century Race, 2012
Kara Walker beside her work, Sketch for an American Comic Opera with 20th Century Race, 2012

VIUSAL ARTS REVIEW: Kara Walker @ The MAC, Belfast

Continuing its reputation for staging major exhibitions by international artists, the MAC brings a fantastic selection of work by Kara Walker to Belfast, her first exhibition of this scale in Ireland. The collection is ironically titled An Exhibition of Capable Artworks by the Notable Hand of the Celebrated American, Kara Elizabeth Walker, Negress; Walker, a black American woman, here reappropriates a term now considered derogatory in order to set the tone for challenging and provocative work that interrogrates racial stereotypes, the power relations and violence used to uphold it, and the inequalities of gender relations.

Walker is a fearless artist; black and white cut-paper silhouettes and short films confront racism, slavery and the American Civil War in a manner that is jolting, yet jaunty, unsettling yet never forgetting humour; she makes oppressors the butt of the joke in a way that is arch and clever.

Walker, 44, who studied art at Rhode Island School of Design and was born in Stockton, California, confronts racism, slavery and misogyny, all fuelled by her experience of living in the American South as a child.

Three walls of the MAC’s Upper Gallery are filled with Walker’s hand-cut silhouettes. Even though the figures are in silhouette, we can tell who is white and who is black through Walker’s clever mock-use of racial stereotypes. The white men have ridiculous angled jaws, while the black men have lips and noses that remind us of so many racist representations of ‘savages’. There is a very powerful juxtaposition at work here. We are reminded of quaint and innocent children’s story books by the style of the images, but the content is shocking and absurd.

A slightly different, stronger, version of this juxtaposition is at work in the three short films on display, again featuring Walker’s trademark silhouettes. The films are intentionally amateurish: the artist’s arm is visible as she manipulates the figures, the music is cheesy, the sparse dialogue unrehearsed. They are essentially puppet shows, silly and ridiculous at first glance, but, once again, the content is harrowing.

Showing in the Sunken Gallery, Fall Frum Grace [sic] tells the story of a white woman’s affair with a black man, and the terrible consequences that ensue when her white lover finds out. The film is extremely hard to watch in parts, but also very funny in others. This tension, which is present in so much of Walker’s work, highlights the terrible absurdity of the racism and sexism that she so defiantly confronts.


The Kara Walker exhibition at the MAC, Belfast runs until April 27. For more information visit themaclive.com/ or call the box office on 02890 235053.