Remember all those obnoxious people who took selfies with Kara Walker's "A Subtlety" installation this past summer? The artist finally addressed the foolery in her first interview since the exhibit wrapped in July.
The photos, which were searchable on Instagram or Twitter via the hashtag #karawalkerdomino, were a classic example of the problem with white gaze in the realm of black art and how easily ignorant jokes can undermine historical significance.
Carolina A. Miranda spoke with Walker for the L.A. Times at a sold-out event on Oct. 11 for the Broad's "Un-Private Collection" talk series, in which Walker and film director Ava DuVernay discussed their artistic process as black creatives.
Speaking with Miranda before the event, Walker addressed some of the responses from white viewers of her art. The full name of the installation: "The Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant."
That is part of an ongoing debate about black creativity, through the 20th and now the 21st century. It's, "Who is looking?" And it's always been the same answer for the most part. How do people look? How are people supposed to look? Are white audiences looking at it in the right way? And are black audiences looking to see this piece? And, of course, my question is: What is the right way to look at a piece that is full of ambiguities and ego and all the other things that go into making a monumental sculpture?
The reactions to "A Subtlety" were no doubt disturbing. What's disturbing can also be oddly fascinating and teachable. Not surprisingly, Walker expected both the sophomoric and the intellectual reactions. And she's working on a response to them.
I put a giant 10-foot vagina in the world and people respond to giant 10-foot vaginas in the way that they do. It's not unexpected. Maybe I'm sick. Sometimes I get a sort of kick out of the hyper essay writing, that there's gotta be this way to sort of control human behavior. [But] human behavior is so mucky and violent and messed-up and inappropriate. And I think my work draws on that. It comes from there. It comes from responding to situations like that, and it pulls it out of an audience. I've got a lot of video footage of that [behavior]. I was spying.
I'm working on [a piece about it] now. I want to tell about the gathering of this piece. Overall, it was a very positive environment. Large groups of people came, families came, grandmothers came, little kids — things that don't happen very often around contemporary art. Overall, my sense is that [something] is gonna happen. [Laughs.] People are stupid, but the greater majority are conscientious, if not always respectful, and they are aware of one another's presence in the room.
Aside from this enlightening L.A. Times interview, the convo between Walker and DuVernay is also well worth watching.
Image via Getty