NYU Black Renaissance Noire Winter 2014 - Page 95

It is astonishing how much attention Ms. Walker receives for work that seems as empty as an Andy Warhol Campbell Soup Can image, and certainly does not measure up to the quality of inventive virtuoso of Barbara Chase Ribaud, Martin Puryear, or Oliver Lee Jackson. Yet, Ms. Walker does have a place in the American “art world” as if black expression must receive its authentication by passing through the hoops of dominant culture adjudication, as if it were the only legitimate authority on artistic practice that matters in the world. The need to interrogate the misappropriation of valid African American expressivity is precisely what prompted our inquiry into African Diasporic aesthetics at Emory University. So, as you can sense, I have no particular fascination for Ms. Walker, nor empathy, merely my sympathy...(which she obviously does not need on her way to the bank). What drove me to prod my reliable friend, globe-jetter (and originator of the journal Black Renaissance Noire), Manthia Diawara to venture with me from Greenwich Village to Williamsburg in Brooklyn to see Kara Walker’s “Subtlety” was sugar, and how it played and plays a huge role in the unsweetening of the African Diaspora. Inside the Domino factory I became intrigued, fascinated and to my surprise much impressed by what I saw and felt. The piece touched issues of long interest to me: ambitious art beyond museums and galleries; monumentalism (whose latest controversy is the World Trade Center memorial); and different types of irony at play in the gazes of the entitled and the marginalized. Two days later at a dinner party hosted by Paul and Wanda Harrison I found myself recalling my impressions to a score of friends and other guests, who listened with polite silence. A spike of tricksterism passes among some of my friends, sometimes in the form of signifying. Two weeks after the dinner party I got an email from Manthia. He had collected several addresses of my friends and co-correspondents, including some who had been at that dinner party, with a link to Carol Diehl’s piece that “might be interesting to his [my] group.” The nearest literary analogy I could think of was Junior High, being shoved into a rumble for the amusement of a fervid crowd. I could not back down from Manth ia’s public provocation. I was forced to flesh out what I was thinking about “Subtlety,” using Carol Dielh’s article as a foil. I started to plunge back into the debate after reading Paul’s statement, then decided against it. By this time the exhibition was due to close the next day and be dismantled. Writing more about what I saw and reacted to — a one-off, site specific construction — would be like dissecting a phantom. There were two primary avenues of approach offered to the sphinx-like figure sugar and the Mammy iconography. Looming close behind was the five-alarm persona of Kara Walker. Even people who saw the exhibit and were disturbed by the Sugar Baby often found it gripping. Some who hadn’t seen it (including some at another dinner party “given in my honor” in Los Angeles that felt like an Inquisition) hold strong emotions associated with features of the sculpture and its author. Everyone brings personal feelings and experiences to a work of art, and among Black people these can include deep hurts and tender, sacred, non-negotiable spaces. Some convictions settled before a work was created, or seen, will not change. My profit from these exchanges is massive. It is a special thing, all too rare, for a single object from a Black artist to produce impassioned discussion among literate non-specialists in widening circles. Everyone who has written on this art scandal has been forced to probe more deeply into their thinking, if not to change it. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE Walker’s enterprise, while perhaps more ambitious than Norman Rockwell, borders on being cartoonish, appearing as “arrested development,” a grown-up engaged in child-play that is completely unappealing or interesting for mature, certainly not enlightened, consumption. Most tedious is her seeming desire for public expurgation of personal trauma, a self-purging of personal angst to the point of absurd-nauseum that seems more appropriate for clinical examination on the couch of a Shrink, if not otherwise, providing the public an opportunity to engage in the popular American entertainment of voyeurism. 93 Clyde Talyor Some semi-private email commentaries have a way of getting around in a circuit of zero to one degree of separation. The first response I saw, no doubt to what I had written, was Brenda Marie Osbey’s exquisite piece harnessing the power of narrative. Her poetry often flows as small or immense histories. My friend Paul Carter Harrison, having read other items on the exhibition beside mine, took it as a teachable moment, as indeed it was. Then followed Barbara Lewis’ astute analysis. There may be dozens more commentaries orbiting in other circuits.