Kara Walker

Californian multi-disciplinary artist confronts American slave history with this endlessly inventive exhibition at The MAC

American artist Kara Walker delves deep into the horror of the slave trade, the American Civil War and sexual abuse in this provocative exhibition at The MAC in Belfast, which combines cut-out silhouette friezes, large, dramatic charcoal drawings and astute video installations featuring puppetry and shadow-play.

Walker is endlessly inventive, jocular and cheeky even while engaging with the darkest themes: racial hatred, rape, man's inhumanity to man. Some may find the combination of irony and whimsy in such a context offensive, but this is to miss Walker's true motive – to underline the terrible warp of logic; childish, crude, Neanderthal – that led to the subjugation of blacks in her homeland.

Walker, 44, was born in California, studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design and spent time in the American south as a child. As a black woman her vantage point here carries extra valence. Clearly troubled by the way the popular mind conceptualised racial difference in order to enslave blacks, Walker evinces the black bogeymen and women of the deluded white American consciousness.

 

Using black and white cut-out silhouettes, Walker sets blacks with exaggeratedly simian features in a variety of crude, animalistic postures against white people with harsh, hick-like jaw lines that smack of stupidity, aggression and the need to dominate.

The style is reminiscent of an innocent children's storybook or the quaint style one might find on a patchwork quilt, but look closely and all ideas of corn-spun loveliness predominating in the Antebellum South are eradicated by graphic moments of horror. White men subjugate blacks in situations of physical compromise; blacks copulate or cavort, half-nude, unrestrained and again and again subject to white force.

These figures are set in the 19th century, white women in intricate period dress ordering their black slaves to work the land, white men lording it over the black underclass with a grotesque sense of righteousness that was upheld by law and a flawed interpretation of the word of God.

It is a period of immense horror and one which America arguably still struggles to address, with films like The Help (2011), Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012) and this year's Oscar-toting 12 Years A Slave – bravely and ingeniously directed by Steve McQueen – addressing what has long remained something of a taboo subject in American popular culture.

 

This exhibition is the perfect companion to McQueen's searing movie, zooming in on the evils of slavery and the rank prejudices used to uphold its practice.

Walker draws dark, menacing horned figures – playing on the white oppressor’s skewed conception of blacks as savage, evil and uncivilised. Elsewhere, black people writhe and scream in an awful 'Guernica'-like tableaux of subjugation and violation, or black and white people embrace and draw apart in violent struggle.

Walker's use of film can be difficult to watch, with puppets of white men raping their black slaves or inflicting death by guns or lynching while bluesy, Bible belt music plays, as in 'Fall Frum Grace' [sic] in the Sunken Gallery.

The combination of horror and melody is dissonant and unnerving, suggesting how cheaply the American black underclass was made to suffer and how terribly absurd this period in American history remains. It makes me consider anew how this history of racial segregation and abuse haunts, shadows and informs the America we know today.

Kara Walker runs at The MAC, Belfast runs until April 27.