Saturday, March 8, 2008

Kara Walker v. Betye Saar


NPR's News and Notes blogged recently on Kara Walker. Walker's work fascinates (and revolts) me on the same level that Betye Saar's work tantalizes and seduces me. The first reminds me that I'm a woman of color in a country that has a history of this....

Kara Walker, Camptown Ladies (1998)

And this...

Kara Walker, You Do (1993-4)

These are the mild ones. The video has more graphic silhouettes.

This art is troubling in the esoteric sense of the word. You look at them, and you shrug, or you look and you look away...but something is wrong. Something makes your stomach turn over. Something makes the bile rise. It is like Kara Walker gives you a real glimpse at the underworld of our modernity, our national belonging, our most racist and exploitable possibilities.

But Betye Saar....

Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972)

Betye Saar, Sambo's Banjo (1971-2)

Betye Saar, Midnight Madonnas (1996)

Saar steadies the world again. She hands Aunt Jemima a gun. She makes Sambo's guitar a fetish with the power to kill. She lifts black womanhood up to the sacred instead of defining it as the common denominator of virtuous whiteness.

At the end of the day. We need both...

"Let's face it. I am a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name...My country needs me, and if I were not here, I would have to be invented." --Hortense J. Spillers
...but, to be honest, I don't feel like Kara Walker speaks my world. Maybe it's because that world is too scary. But, actually, I think its just that the black experience is about more than the obscene. It is also about taking your gun, taking your gris-gris, kissing your cross up to La Virgen, and stepping outside your door to struggle another day. Even when that struggle is in the form of dissemblance and signifyin' dat monkey, which it usually is. That is still insurgency, it is still resistance.

Betye Saar, Black Girl's Window (1969)

This is me. I'm the black girl in the window dreaming freedom dreams without which this history, this space, that memory, that moment would not exist. I'm the kindred and the wild seed. I am angry. I'm sweet, like honey. And "I've got the shotgun on your back."

I'm more than the world's beast of burden. I'm also its greatest inspiration.