A drawing, which was so controversial it had to be covered up, is now on full display at a library in New Jersey. So, why would the Newark Library display an art work that depicts oral sex?
Because the piece, by renowned African-American artist Kara Walker, is, like so much of her other work, an exploration of race, gender, sexuality and violence. The title of the piece, "The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos,'' (a reference to Martin Luther King's more optimistic quote "The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice") says as much. The drawing is consistent with Walker's style and content, as Paul Sternberger, an associate art history professor at Rutgers-Newark, explains:
"For many years she has been exploring themes of race, gender and oppression, often in a quasi-historical context... Often those themes include violent and sexually charged imagery.... That's what she does.... It's frightening."
The piece, which was put up in November, depicts the era of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and contains violent imagery and images of the KKK. But the aspect that most found so disturbing was that of a white man pushing the head of a naked black woman, whose back is to us, into his groin. Kendell Willis, a library services employee, recalls, "I didn't notice it at first.... Then I looked up and was blown away." Willis sent Library Director Wilma Grey an e-mail complaining about the art work.
He wasn't the only one upset by it. His colleague Sandra West, a library associate, said, "It can go back where it came from.... I really don't like to see my people like this. We need to see something uplifting and not demeaning."
Grey was surprised by the negative response to the drawing, saying, "It evokes man's inherent ability to be unkind to people.... It's meant to evoke some kind of emotion that says all of these terrible things happened and that we should not be complacent." A day after putting up the drawing, however, West had it covered in fabric, out of respect for her staff.
Walker lamented the decision to conceal her artwork:
"I am sorry that the staff is so put off by the work that they feel the need to prevent others from seeing it and making their own call to look or look away....I don't advocate any kind of censorship. The promise of any artwork is that it can hold us, viewer and maker, in a conflicted or contestable space, without real world injury or loss."
But after more discussion, the library changed its mind and redisplayed the drawing. Willis, who initially complained about the piece, explained, "They said there are a lot of things in artwork we don't want to talk about, and that made absolute sense." Scott London, a longtime art collector who lent the drawing to the library applauds the library's brave decision, saying,
"Libraries have a view to the future; their custodians recognize that ideas that may be unpopular today may have influence tomorrow.... It is reassuring that the Newark Public Library chose to maintain and uphold this principle by unshrouding and continuing to showcase Ms. Walker's drawing. It was not the easy thing to do."
The library has invited Walker to come and speak about the piece and has posted a piece of paper below the drawing where viewers are encouraged to write their thoughts and reactions.
Censorship or common decency? Newark Library covers up controversial artwork [The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger]
Controversial painting in Newark Library is bared once again [The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger]