Nicholas Powers, a professor of black literature at SUNY Westbury, explains why he yelled, “You are recreating the very racism this art is supposed to critique!” at the Kara Walker exhibit recently:
Anger shot up my body like a hot thermometer. Face flushed, I walked to the Mammy sphinx. Couples posed in front of it, smiling as others took their photos. So here it was, an artwork about how Black people’s pain was transformed into money was a tourist attraction for them. A few weeks ago, I had gone to the 9/11 museum and no one, absolutely no one, posed for smiling pictures in front of the wreckage.
I caught the eye of the few people of color, we talked and shook our heads at the jokey antics of white visitors. We felt invisible, and our history was too. It stung us and we wanted to leave. I forced myself to go the backside of the statue and saw there what I expected to see, white visitors making obscene poses in front of the ass and vulva of the “Subtlety.” A heavy sigh fell out me. “Don’t they see that this is about rape?” I muttered as another visitor stuck out his tongue.
What is the responsibility of the artist? Is it different for a Black artist who creates in the midst of political struggle? I first saw Walker’s work more than a decade ago in Boston and remembered studying her panorama of black silhouettes. Violent sex, violent lashings, prancing slave owners and mutilated black bodies wrapped the room. The spark of her art came from taking the form of 19th century visual vocabulary, quaint history book illustration, and using it to represent the actual brutality occurring at the time. Standing there, I admired her technical ability and also, her vision, to force us to read the suppression of real violence under an epoch’s ideology. And yet, I wondered even then, if exposing the details of Black victimization was truly freeing if it simply triggered the pain of people of color, and in the precarious atmosphere of the nearly all-white art world at that.
Read more at the Indypendent.
I was there at the exhibit when Powers made his declaration and talked to him afterward. “What a lot of people of color in this room are feeling but just haven’t said out loud is that they don’t like how folks pose in front of this statue dedicated to the violence of slavery,” Powers said. “It’s actually a collective feeling,” he said at the time.