The Subtlety of Kara Walker’s Race and Gender Art is Lost on Some

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This sight stuck with me and made me think about labor, capital, production, greed... all the things that went into supporting the production of agricultural goods that went on (and still goes on in relation to agricultural labour in certain American states and countries) that strips away the humanity from those who died creating a product they weren’t even allowed to consume. Perhaps the conversation I heard while waiting in line made me feel defensive, but I felt I was even more aware of the other visitors in the warehouse, waiting for someone to say or do something.

Some people seemed more focused on taking pictures; while others took selfies with the front of the Sphinx in the background. Others pondered the figurines, and probably like me, wondered if the ones that had toppled over and were oozing molasses were strategically placed in front of the sunlight-strewn windows to naturally disintegrate. After peering into a basket that one of the figurines embraced, the remnants of one of the expired figurines lay there in shards, including half its face, obviously expressionless, which made it even more morbid. But there were those in which it seemed because of their fascination with their mobile devices and loud conversations about stuff that had nothing to do with the exhibit, to be there just so they could say they saw it, versus, being curious about what the exhibit actually meant.

I had been in the space for approximately 10 minutes when I knew that I wasn’t going to last much longer. The overwhelming feeling of sadness overcame me when I thought about real-life boys, boys that might have been from my blood country of Jamaica. When they lost their usage from heat stroke, disease, starvation or even murder, they were tossed aside like garbage. But I wanted to see the Sphinx up close so I slowly walked around the figure and viewed the backside, observing the pronounced vulva and feeling conflicted as to whether I should take a picture of it. After all, it seemed vulgar and while I wasn’t like some of my fellow guests who were laughing and pointing, capturing it seemed obtrusive. I knew that if I took pictures they were going to be put to good use, so I took a few.

I didn’t witness anyone taking ‘selfies’ of the Sphinx’s behind, as Nicholas Powers, wrote about in his article “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit”. Powers was also there the same day as part of the We Are Here campaign and writes:

The visitors lowered their cameras. Just seconds ago, they had been aiming their lenses at the sculpture of a 40-foot tall, nude black female sphinx. Many posed under its ass; some laughed and pointed at its vulva. As I watched their joking, my thoughts spun and I walked into the crowd, turned to face them and began yelling… I strode to the front, turned around and yelled at the crowd that when they objectify the sculpture’s sexual parts and pose in front of it like tourists they are recreating the very racism the art was supposed to critique. I yelled that this was our history and that many of us were angry and sad that it was a site of pornographic jokes.

Powers later said to Colorlines that his impromptu decision to correct people stemmed from the urge to resist the ‘white gaze’: to demand respect for what stood so prominently before them. “What a lot of people of color in this room are feeling but just haven’t said out loud is that they don’t like how folks pose in front of this statue dedicated to the violence of slavery,” Powers said. “It’s actually a collective feeling.”

Did anyone pick up on why the vulva was so prominent? Exposed? And as mentioned previously, vulgar? Walker could have fashioned a drape of fabric to conceal but there was a reason for her not to. Not vulgar in a porn way, but vulgar as to what the genatalia of a black woman represents to the larger public. To some, it is seen as a means for production. We have the racialized stereotypes as to what the production of black children means: unwanted, uncared-for children who then are dependent on government handouts because of their emotionally and presumably, intellectually ill-equipped mothers.

“A Subtlety” carries the subtitle of the “Marvelous Sugar Baby”. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s writer Noliwe Rooks, that term hearkens back to the history of Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus whose genitalia was put on display in museums both prior and after her death, reflects “a piece of art that visually represents all of the key stereotypes of black women in which the dominant culture has trafficked for centuries. In seeming response either to critics of the work or to a culture so consistently bent on representing black women thusly, Walker’s sculpture literally gives "the finger" to viewers with one of her giant, catlike, faux paws.” However, the response to black women’s genitalia is interesting in relation to how the sexuality of prominent black women artists are viewed.

For black women, there is the stereotype of the oversexed Jezebel, whose pathology is limited to sexual pleasure and devoid of femininity. The response of predominantly white viewers posing in front of the exposed vulva evoked a sense of silliness and ridicule - many seemed overly excited at the sight of a vagina so exposed. When singer Rihanna showed up in a see-through dress at the CFDA Awards, the response wasn’t as  humourous as prehaps she wanted, as people seemed to be more outraged over the fact that she had a better body than they did. In addition, her ad to promote her own perfume in which none of her genitalia could be seen, still was deemed as inappropriate and the ad restricted in areas in which children could view it.

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