Safety Curtain 1998/1999

Kara Walker's "Theater of Cruelty"

The invitation beckons: "Come witness an amazing story as told in papyrotonomie created by a Negress in bondage detailing her extraordinary flight to freedom." This is not your standard exhibition announcement; the artist's name is nowhere to be found, and there are no images. Taking the form of a theatrical broadside announcing a show titled "The High and Soft Laughter of the Nigger Wenches at Night," this solicitation introduced the savage art of Kara Walker to an unsuspecting public. Distributed on the occasion of her first solo exhibition in 1995, this invitation contains all the keys to her work, for those who care to read between the lines. A young, African-American artist, Walker resuscitates the literary trope of the slave narrative and the theatrical genre of the minstrel show to weave her devilish tales of persecution and insurrection. The above-mentioned "papyrotonomie" recalls the 19th-century cyclorama, a revolving environmental-scale painting that depicted scenes of historic events such as the Revolutionary War and Civil War, presenting them like theaters in the round. The reference to paper ("papyr"), however, links this dramatic allusion directly to Walker's own aesthetic terrain. Her stories are narrated with life-size paper cut-outs, astonishing silhouettes, mysterious shadow puppets.

"All is revealed in shadow-form," promises the invitation, including "the pathos of life and love as well as general & specific abuses amongst lesser peoples." Weaving together the erotic and the abject, Walker reaches back into the repressed history of race relations in the United States to spin horrific tales of bigotry and exploitation. But like the theatrical motifs she invokes in her exhibition announcement, Walker's approach to her subject matter operates on the level of "entertainment" – it is raucously humorous and bitterly sarcastic. Her commission to design a curtain for the Vienna State Opera brings her own sources in early American theater tantalizingly to the surface.

The minstrel show was the most popular form of public entertainment in the United States during the latter half of the 19th-century. Performed by white actors in "black-face" make-up, minstrel theater travestied the lives of African-Americans through the hyperbolic presentation of cultural stereotypes. There were three stock characters: Jim Crow, the carefree, naive slave; Mr. Tambo, the ever-cheerful musician; and Zip Coon, the free man who aspired to a world of gentility far beyond his experiences or means. As staged caricatures, these three figures reinforced white society's derogatory views of black culture, while assuaging any white guilt over oppressing an entire segment of the human race by presenting grown men as little more than clowns. Minstrel show antics also allowed the white audience to vicariously and voyeuristically break their own cultural taboos: unbridled sexuality, unstructured time, and puerile behavior.

In her desublimated theater of the antebellum South, Walker turns the minstrel show inside-out and hurls it back at its condescending audience. Her paper cut-out figures act out their viewers' deepest fears in a fantastical spectacle of Sadean offenses: pederasty, bestiality, sodomy, scatology, castration, murder, cannibalism. The shadow world she depicts is hell itself, where the minstrel's "Negro of Plantation Society" is free to wreak havoc on himself and those around him. It is difficult to ascertain where in Walker's work the hallucinatory enactment of untold tortures ends and the fantasy of retaliation begins: "Negresses" seduce and then dismember their white masters; three barebreasted "mammies" suckle each other in a circular pose reminiscent of the Three Graces; a limbless black man roasts on a spit over an open fire like a cut of meat; an old peg-legged land-owner sodomizes a little black girl while piercing an infant with his sword; and a young slave woman raises her skirts to drop new borns like a litter. It would be wrong to approach Walker's theater as high tragedy, however. Rather, it should be understood as epic parody. This is the transgressive carnivalesque of Mikhail Bakhtin, a celebration of the grotesque in which the repulsive is empowered. The laughter that her work provokes should not be stifled, for it is aimed as much at ourselves – modern-day "enlightened" viewers that we are – as it is at the historical perversities represented. Like Walker's technique of silhouetting – a minor art form once used for portraiture but now considered a "craft" – her work is deceptively one-dimensional. Given time – an operative component of theater itself – Walker's art resonates with multiple levels of meaning. Ribald humor and unspeakable misery coexist in dialectical tension. Perhaps these contrary forces are the necessary ingredients for an exorcism.