Kara Walker's Sainthood by Elizabeth Spenst
What can satisfy the souls of bodies that are imprinted with pain so deep it is only amplified in erasure and transmitted through pleasure? Kara Walker came to fame in the 1990s for her black paper silhouette figures, depicting shockingly violent antebellum scenes. The features and details of the black and white bodies on the walls are erased in the black paper; the focus is on the pain and pleasure of moving bodies in a static moment. Walker cuts representation down to the essential, and in doing so, makes a bold statement about figuration, the psychology of slavery, and American history.
The Ecstasy of St. Kara is an exhibition of Walker’s newest works at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The works on display were all made during her 2016 residency in Rome where she encountered “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” by Bernini in the Cornaro Chapel. Bernini’s work is a white marble sculpture that depicts the moment right after an angel has pierced the heart of St. Teresa with a spear, provoking an encounter with the Divine. The angel holds a bit of Teresa’s robe between his fingers, keeping her from falling over in a moment of orgasmic intensity that leaves her face upturned, mouth slightly open, eyes closed.
In St. Teresa’s autobiography, she describes the sensation of the moment: “The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.”
Not a cut-out, but a drawing of a black woman’s partial silhouette from breasts to upturned face is on a wall by itself facing the entrance to The Ecstasy of St. Kara. Inside the silhouette of the woman is a landscape of smoke and destruction with a tall, thin tree stretching from the middle of the woman’s chest to her nose. The woman’s open mouth and tilted head is reminiscent of Bernini’s St. Teresa, and the spear-like tree is an inversion of the angel’s instrument of the Divine, now growing inside the woman of Submission despite her apocalyptic interior.
The exhibition is comprised of mostly large-scale works on paper made with graphite and charcoal, the exhibit’s focal points are three different narrative drawings that cover entire walls. These grotesque depictions of bodies engaged in violence are offset by abstract drawings that resemble draping fabrics with titles like The Passion of Every Wretched and Ungrateful Meme You Post and Lost African Colony.
These abstract works are a departure from Walker’s figurative body of work that engage with the historicized black body. Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved is emblematic of the recent cultural focus on understanding blackness through the human interactions and minutia of American slavery. The title character, Beloved, mysteriously appears at the house of Sethe, a former slave living in Ohio. Beloved’s presence in the house causes a “re-memory” of traumas deeply embedded in the body, but unspeakable until Beloved forces them into the open. Through academic and artistic interventions, Sethe’s memories and the American historical memory of the enslaved black body have been critically examined and articulated.
It seems like the image of the dead black body in the streets is the most widely circulated contemporary image of of this era. In Kara Walker’s essay in the catalogue for this exhibit, she writes of her fear that black people are being murdered now more than ever “as proxies” for the black president. For the past 8 years, a black man enacted the most sacred right of citizenship as the President of the United States. The racial tension and publicized violence resulting from this have led us to the age of Black Lives Matter and an election marked by narratives of destruction and anarchy.
Perhaps the defining literary text of this moment is Citizen: An American Lyric by poet Claudia Rankine, a book concerned with intimate and public moments of racial violence and micro aggressions. In Citizen, Rankine writes, “You could build a world out of need or you could hold everything black and see.”
The Ecstasy of St. Kara looks at these attempted constructions of new worlds. Securing a Motherland Should Have Been Enough, 2016, takes up an entire wall with a triptych drawing of a black woman building a wooden ark-like structure on top of a pile of bodies. A mixture of black, white, and racially ambiguous bodies, these figures are very much alive as they crowd the bottom of the drawing and serve as spectators to the construction of their exclusion. The black woman is depicted in mid swing, as she hammers a nail into the wood; behind her, a little black girl is prying a wooden board loose from the ark.
The Republic of New Afrika at a Crossroads, 2016, is another large scale drawing that uses graphite and watercolor to depict silhouettes of black bodies engaged in agricultural labor scattered in a field of green plants and bloodied black bodies. The Republic of New Afrika (RNA) was a group founded in 1968 that called for reparations and a separate black country in the southeastern United States. Of course this vision of utopia was never realized, but fear of this vision caused a lot of violent confrontations between the FBI and the RNA.
MOVE was a Philadelphia-based separatist black group founded by John Africa is 1972. All affiliates changed their last names to “Africa,” and MOVE often got into violent altercations with local law enforcement. A 1985 standoff ended with the Philadelphia police dropping a bomb on the MOVE house, which led to the destruction of 65 homes and the deaths of 5 children and 6 adults. Walker’s The Last Memory of Birdie Africa, 2016 is a large-scale collage depicting a scene of fire, police, and death that Birdie Africa, the youngest survivor of the bombing, would have seen. The bombing was the last memory of Birdie Africa in name because he was thereafter known as Michael Moses Ward; former citizen of MOVE returned to the order of the United States.
Walker reflects on attempted black futures while imagining a post-American understanding of America. Monuments of the Late United States, 2016, is a series of small watercolors in the exhibit that include an image of the Capitol building next to a painting of a pyramid. We measure time and eras in arbitrary ways, but the visceral decay of monuments of civilization are their own markers of time that can tell a different story.
The moment we are living in will be historicized as the age of Black Lives Matter, and Walker’s “BLM” is a drawing of a headstone inscribed with those letters that also looks like the torso of a woman. Her hair is curly and her features are obscured, but she is alone amidst scrawled black marks on the canvas. In a smaller series of drawings on the same wall, Walker includes a handwritten text that reads “Kara E. Walker will NOT save your fat ass from yourself America.” Throughout her career, Walker has built a body of work that reinvents the United States with its own instruments, and it has always been relevant to our present day. But drawing a contemporary civil rights movement at its deathbed summons history too soon, and devalues the black lives that have always been central to Walker’s work, past, present, and future.
Origin Story, 2016, is a work of charcoal on paper that differs in size when compared to the rest of the exhibit, yet it stands out for its simplicity. The canvas is almost entirely covered in black diagonal lines that zoom in on the center of drawing, where a white silhouette of a black woman’s face is turned at a 90-degree angle. Her orientation on the canvas and the title of the work suggest that she is the beginning and the end of everything. The Ecstasy of St. Kara is not an exhibit of hope or fanciful futures, but it is still a body of work made to render this moment back to us and to future generations.
Elizabeth Spenst is a Yale student and founder of DOWN Magazine, a publication for and run by students of color at the university.