The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Cooley Gallery to Show Controversial Artist

It isn’t uncommon to look at a work of art and wonder “is this supposed to be a penis?” but in Kara Walker’s cut-outs, the question may be justified. On September 4th, her exhibit More and Less opens in Reed’s Cooley Gallery. It will feature a new film in her signature style of silhouette puppetry, as well as prints and cut-outs.

Walker’s art explores the history of the American Civil War through the lens of slavery and sexual violence. Her work exposes the political viciousness and true nature of gender inequality during the period. Walker’s sometimes obscene portrayal of these cultural embarrassments has drawn criticism. The piece that brought her into the spotlight of the art world featured a black woman fellating a white man, a white man performing anilingus on a black man, two newborns falling from between a black woman’s legs, and, finally, an enlarged penis. Though the work may appear gratuitous to the casual observer, Walker draws from historical documents to give an honest depiction of how black slaves were portrayed in the antebellum south. She showcases a world of exploitation where the black body was mutilated, beaten, destroyed and made to submit to white masters.

Walker’s exhibit in the Cooley Gallery primarily consists of her most recent film Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale, in which a white southern belle is shown in a relationship with a black laborer. The film juxtaposes the archetypical southern notions of black male hypersexuality and white female sexual purity. It is, in the words of the artist, a tale of “forbidden love, and inevitable, devastating loss.” Through Walker’s art, the observer faces racial tensions that have become more muted since the Civil War, but remain driving forces in contemporary culture. She forces the viewer to acknowledge the history of popular entertainment, which evolved from the blackface minstrelsy that Walker evokes, and remember that a subcurrent of racism and hatred lurks beneath the surface of today’s purported post-racial environment.

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