Kara Walker: Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!
Constance Cary Harrison, first seamstress of the Confederate flag, remembered Virginia after the execution of John Brown in 1859. Her family lived far from Harpers Ferry, scene of Brown’s slave uprising:
But there was the fear—unspoken, or pooh-poohed at by the men who were mouth-pieces for our community—dark, boding, oppressive, and altogether hateful. I can remember taking it to bed with me at night, and awaking suddenly oftentimes to confront it through a vigil of nervous terror, of which it never occurred to me to speak to anyone. The notes of whip-poor-wills in the sweet-gum swamp near the stable, the mutterings of a distant thunder-storm, even the rustle of the night wind in the oaks that shaded my window, filled me with nameless dread. In the daytime it seemed impossible to associate suspicion with those familiar tawny or sable faces that surrounded us…. But when evening came again, and with it the hour when the colored people (who in summer and autumn weather kept astir half the night) assembled themselves together for dance or prayer-meeting, the ghost that refused to be laid was again at one’s elbow.
In the savage, undreamed-of slave system in the New World, Africans were physically and mentally subjugated, worked to death, and replaced. Only when the enslaved labor population was maintained by reproduction and not by the importation of replacements were they given enough to eat to sustain life, and that was more than one hundred years after Louis XIV’s Black Codes licensed barbarism in the Caribbean. Black Retribution is the root of White Fear.
Harriet Beecher Stowe tried to portray a Nat Turner–like character in Dred; A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), the novel that followed her sensation, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Stowe gives Dred the pedigree of being the son of Denmark Vesey, the leader of a planned slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822. But she turns her Nat Turner into Robin Hood, and he never gets around to his slave uprising, perhaps because Stowe could not bring herself to depict the slaughter of white people at the hands of black people. You could say that Kara Walker’s work begins at the threshold of this resistance to imagining and historical memory. Before John Brown there had been Nat Turner; before Denmark Vesey, the Haitian Revolution; before Mackandal’s Rebellion, Cato’s Rebellion.
In Kara Walker’s exhibition of twenty-three new works, mostly on unframed paper, at the Sikkema Jenkins gallery in New York, it is as though she has drawn her images of antebellum violence from the nation’s hindbrain. Walker has been creating her historical narratives of disquiet for a while, and they are always a surprise: the inherited image is sitting around, secure in…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.