It’s hard not to think about the racial upheaval that recently escalated in the United States when one visits Kara Walker’s new show, Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First. In the main upper gallery, one is greeted by a vast black-and-white photograph of Stone Mountain, Georgia (made in collaboration with photographer Ari Marcopoulos), a site claimed by the Ku Klux Klan as their spiritual birthplace in 1915, and onto whose rock face was later carved the Confederate Memorial, a huge bas-relief of three mounted Civil War leaders from the South (with all the associations of racism, slavery and white supremacy this history entails). The carving’s continuing existence has been the subject of heated debate, most recently since the Charleston shooting of ten African-American churchgoers last June by a white man. Applied as wallpaper to the whole surface of one side of the gallery, it looms over the visitor as an inescapable presence throughout the show and acts as a starting point for Walker’s personal exploration of the history of racism in America and the myths of nation-building, and how these often distorted narratives feed into contemporary racial politics. In a series of some 40 darkly humorous pencil-and- watercolour drawings, Walker reinvents Stone Mountain by projecting various fantasies still associated with the site, such as burning crosses and black men on the stake, reimagining the bas-relief with racist and fascist slogans, or as a memorial to Dylan Roof, the man who confessed to the Charleston murders.
Walker’s historical farce takes full form in 40 Acres of Mule (all works 2015), a large, carnivalesque charcoal-on-paper triptych hanging on the other side of the gallery, where rearing mules, black and white men, and black women, all with penises, are depicted chaotically riding one another in the midst of swords and money bags, a Confederate flag and fading Ku Klux Klan figures laughing in the background. The cartoonish style of the characters, who seem straight out of a Civil War comic book, is made even more apparent in The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin, a striking example of Walker’s cutout silhouette tableaux, which unfolds on the adjacent gallery wall like a grotesque danse macabre.
The series of 12 black-and-white drawings in the lower gallery, Tell Me Your Thoughts on Police Brutality Miss ‘Spank Me Harder’, adopts a less comic and more realist style to depict violent scenarios of abuse of black men and women, which resonates with recent cases of police violence that have led to riots and unrest in the US (An Unarmed Black Man brings to mind the Ferguson killing of an unarmed eighteen-year-old African American by a police officer). Members of a riot squad also seem to populate the three large Four Idioms on Negro Art, which depict darkly lit scenes of an orgy and/or brutal encounters painted in artistic styles often associated with ‘low art’ (primitivism, graffiti and folk art), adding yet another satirical point to her agile deconstruction of racial stereotyping.
Although at times very disturbing, there is something almost cathartic about the grotesque intensity of Walker’s fables, where tales of violence, sex and death are pushed to the point of caricature. Intertwining references to historical and contemporary events with fantasised elements, these nightmarish visions make it hard to draw the line between reality and fiction – or hell and Atlanta. But then, the image of the Ku Klux Klan rally planned this November at Stone Mountain to contest the erection of a ‘Freedom Bell’ in honour of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr, atop the hill might leave one wondering too.
This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of ArtReview.