I have done quite a few articles recently about how humanity and nature intertwine, potentially making me seem a bit “mother earthish”. I am definitely not that, sure I like to think that the world could be a harmonious place, where nature and humans skip along hand in hand, nobody hunts endangered animals, and we aren’t choking the environment with overuse of plastic (no this isn’t an eco-rant). In actual fact I am a realist, which for a long time, I mistakenly took that for pessimism for a long time, but it is the ability to see things just as they are. This means, I can see how terrible we as humans can be, and actually I think in part, it is something about having conscious thought which makes us so unappealing at times.
As I was thinking about writing this article, I was reminded of a quote by Arthur Conan Doyle:-
“There’s a light in a woman’s eyes that shines louder than any words”
When I look at photos of Kara Walker, this quote just seems to fit her (let’s forget it is from a Sherlock Holmes novel), she has a spark and art work that begs to be heard.
Photo Credit Michele Crosera
Born in 1969, Walker has studied art, and received many awards, but her artwork splits critics opinion, some celebrate her vulgar depictions of life where others cast her as using stereotypes which undermines the true intent of her meaning.
“Gone” or its full title “Gone: A historical romance of a civil war as it occurred b’tween the dusky thighs of one young Negress and her heart” – bit of a mouthful and not as catchy as “Gone” I grant you, was created in 1994. It is made of paper cut outs, reflecting the “fun” (I use fun loosely) of creating silhouette of the 1800s. It is based in the antebellum era of economic growth in the South of America which occurred between the end of the 1700s and 1861. This was a time when slavery was common place and the sweeping stereotypes which became completely pervasive into social culture took shape.
Before I start talking about “Gone” I want to make it clear I will be using historical references which today are racist. I am not using these because I think that they are right, but too often we shy away from the wrong doings of the past, either because we are embarrassed by them, or because we would like to forget that those atrocities happened. I personally don’t see colour when it comes to skin tone, but I did grow up when it was still thought to be ok to put a gollywog on marmalade and they still occasionally showed the black and white minstrel show on TV. This didn’t make me racist, but it did make me aware of the stereotypes which are shown in Walker’s piece.
At a glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a love scene, as naturally your eye is drawn to the lovers in the left hand side of work, but as you really start to take in what in front of you, it is a sorrowful depiction of abuse, rape and slavery.
Really have a look at the lovers, it’s a lovely classic pose, reminiscent of so many southern belles in stories as they sneak to meet their lover by moonlight by a lake among the trees, until you notice the second pair of legs beneath her skirt and where the sword of the man is pointing.
One of the strong images that came out from this time, was that of “Mammy”; female slaves who were seen as great domestic workers, who also integrated into the family household, becoming a confidant and soothsayer, considered loyal to their oppressors and a trusted employee. Created to advertise peanuts their broad smile and red headscarf became an image that people associated with their trusted slaves. With this in mind, I see the second pair of feet under the skirt as the woman’s Mammy, advising her in all matters, hidden from plain view yet an integral part of the woman’s life.
The mans sword is much more sordid, leaning towards a phallic symbol of child abuse of the young boy that stands on the edge of the river, or a different view is linked to the woman floating in the river, but I will get to that in a moment.
It has been said that the child on the river is holding a dead swan, but I actually think it is a goose. Geese symbolise bravery, but more so appear in codes that we stitched in to quilts by The Underground Railway which gave instructions to assist those trying to escape their slavery. It was given the name The Underground Railway, after on master was chasing an escaping slave, and he disappeared from the riverbank as though he went on… an underground railway. This could be a depiction of a failed escape.
The woman floating down the river is commonly thought to signify being betrayed or cheated. The very literal term “being sold down the river” came from salves in the North of the country who caused trouble, being sold to the Southern states. The woman in the picture looks as though she is scorning the two lovers in her travels, possibly due to a miscegenation relationship between the man with the sword, and now that he has his Southern Belle, the slave is being shipped off so she can’t cause any trouble for him. The child on the banks possibly the result of the relationship, but is being left to be bought up into the household as a slave that has never know freedom – hence the dead goose. (Told you I would come back to it).
Moving to the hill, you can see well dressed boy, and a stereotypical slave girl, she is performing oral sex on him, as he watches a women in mid air, who is being molested, as though it is an aspiration. Potentially this indicates more of the train of thought that the female slaves were there for whatever their masters intended. At the bottom of the hill you can see a woman, popping out children, only to let them drop to the floor at their peril. This caricature developed to be named Sapphire or Jezabel; Women who were deemed to be devoid of maternal instinct, who were sexually promiscuous and more masculine, as they worked in the field rather than being domesticated. They were seen as a direct opposite to the Mammy role in her nurturing loyalty to her masters. This stereotype really came about from the lack of understanding of cultures, African women being accustomed to being partially nude, against the American ideal of women in many layers. It’s surprising how closed minded we are at times.
The last pair in this is a Master beating a Mammy figure. You can see what I initially took as a tooth flying from her mouth, as he seemingly lifts her to throw her. Mammy’s were identified as having a sassy and controlling nature, and where often shown as giving some “lip” to their Masters, which was all taken in good humor, as they were trusted members of the house hold. The stark reality of this is more likely that should they say something that wasn’t agreed with, they were badly beaten. On closer inspection the object is a tiny head of what I assume is her Master, falling from her mouth, possibly reinforcing the thought that she had been “sassy” to him, which is now why she is being brutally thrown for her actions.
The final thing I am going to point out about this, is the trees that frame the picture, we could just think that it is an indication of the rural settings of the South, but these remind me of hanging trees, almost like the ultimate threat looming over the slaves. It was not really common place to hang slaves, as they were an expensive commodity, and valued in the sense that they did the work that others didn’t want to do. But conversely there was always the threat of hanging, as well as factors in later years with the rise of the KKK, drawing this piece of art through from the stigmas that formed during the late 1700s up to 1865 when slavery was abolished, and the stereotypes which still linger on today to some extent.
Walker used many influences to feed this feminist view of slavery, with inclusions of stories such as “Gone with the Wind”, although through her own admission she had preconceived ideas about the book before she read it.
Now, I think that this piece is rather clever in the way in which Walker has twisted what first appears as a love story into a frank and rather obscene depiction of the life of female slavery, but she has come under fire by critics such as Betye Saar with a feeling that her work is just a revolting way of turning America’s history into a sick and cartoonish joke. I think this comes from a lack of understanding of the acceptance and dark humor at play here. The use of stereotypes could be seen as detrimental to the cause, embodying the caricatures that we now work so hard to eradicate, but my question here would be; why wouldn’t you want to remember this period, and learn from the mistakes of ill made choices? If I stick my fingers in a blender, I certainly don’t forget that it cut them off, and I definitely do not do it again, so why wouldn’t we use our oppressive actions of the past to ensure that we don’t mistreat a whole race/gender/cultural group again?
I say it many times in my articles that art is a subjective matter, and you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Walker uses something that she feels strongly about, but does it in a way in which she feels she can portray it without the need to have graphic detail (how detailed can a silhouette be at the end of the day?) but I can definitely see why some wouldn’t take to this artistic form as perhaps the story board format makes it a little to common place for comfort.
To give some idea on scale and for some closer images of the piece, you can find a short video here
What do you see in “Gone”? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?
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Always wondered about a piece of art? Why not ask me if I know about it?