Instead of her paper cutouts, this Bellevue Arts Museum exhibition features Walker’s eye-opening prints — lithographs, etchings, linocuts, and screen prints.
The exhibition “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power” opened at Bellevue Arts Museum on July 8, just days after police officers fatally shot two black men — Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota — in separate, tragic incidents. The day before the exhibition opened, five white police officers were shot and killed in Texas.
Clearly, sadly, Kara Walker’s images of violence, power imbalance, and racial tension — drawn from the pre-Civil War South — are still relevant today.
Walker’s silhouettes of slaves, southern belles, mammies and masters burst into the art world in the 1990s. She arranges these black cut-paper silhouettes into tableaux that speak of sexual violence, abuse by figures with power and mischievous thwarting of authority.
’Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power’
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Free First Fridays, through Nov. 27. Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue, $5-$12 (425-519-0770 or www.bellevuearts.org).
These themes are heavily present in the BAM exhibition, but don’t expect to see any paper cutouts. Instead, you’ll mainly see eye-opening prints — lithographs, etchings, linocuts, and screen prints — that have allowed Walker to flex her technical muscles and expand her narratives.
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There are also some fantastic cut-steel figurines and a mesmerizing film featuring Walker and others performing a shadow play with paper puppets. These are good additions to the print-centric show, obliging us to consider manipulation and our role in story telling.
The print series titled “The Emancipation Approximation” (1999-2000) is most closely aligned with her characteristic cut-paper work. Twenty-six screen prints fill a large gallery. Each one seems larger than its three-and-a-half feet in height, mainly because of the confrontational imagery and the bold blacks, whites and grays.
Together, they construct a piercing amalgamation of Walker’s cast of stereotypical characters and the myth of Leda and the Swan, in which the Greek god Zeus disguised himself as a swan to seduce (or, rape, depending on the interpretation) Leda, a mortal woman.
Walker splices these story lines and characters to create a metaphor for aggressive inequities and the deceitfulness of those in power, as well as for miscegenation — the interbreeding of people of different races — a taboo subject in American history for many years.
While the framed prints lack the immersiveness of an installation of her cutouts, they do pack a punch with their sharp shapes and relentless repetition.
Printmaking as a vehicle for transmitting stories is foregrounded in the series titled “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated).” Walker appropriated and “annotated” old woodcut illustrations from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (1866), a once-popular educational source.
Walker enlarged the historical prints, allowing us to see the fine craftsmanship, sure, but also forcing us to see what is missing: the horrific oppression of black people during this time period. Walker redresses this absence by superimposing her own prints. Black portrait heads, severed limbs and pleading, laboring, tumbling figures are slapped on top of the fine lines of the old prints.
The medium of print is important here. The originals allowed mass distribution of this sanitized history and now provide scenic context for Walker’s stark imprints.
While there is much to admire in these cycles, the series that really floored me was “An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters” (2010). These strange and disconcerting pictures feature Walker’s drawing skills in a way I’ve never seen before. She used etching and dry-point to draw line after line, to forge shadow and depth, or to illustrate a victimized specter or a menacing little bee.
These prints combine the thematic force of her signature work with a heartbreaking technical subtlety. In “Savant,” a naked woman, silhouetted in black, wears a delicate white mask, hatched with scratchy lines. The aforementioned bee, stinger out, zooms toward her face. Scrawled onto the paper, right above a scraggly bow, is a single word: “Again.”