February 2, 2017

Emancipating the Past

Tales of slavery and power at the UMass Amherst University Museum of Contemporary Art

Artist Kara Walker goes spelunking into dark, unconscious places to exhume and purge long-buried emotions—as she calls them, “maladies”—from our nation’s shameful past. A monumental exhibition of Walker’s work opened on February 2 at the UMass Amherst University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA) and will be on view throughout the spring semester.

Walker uses silhouette installations, invoking antebellum and Reconstruction-era imagery and themes, to address the painful history of American race relations. To view a Kara Walker show or work of art is to be confronted with subject matter that makes you squirm: narratives of race, sexuality, slavery, and power, the nightmare of denying other human beings full personhood, yet executed with such technical mastery, creative invention, and sense of satire that it is hard to look away.

The UMCA exhibition includes three large-scale narrative series—The Emancipation Approximation (1999–2000), Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War: Annotated (2005), and An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010)—as well as murals, metal sculptures, photogravure screenshots from a shadow puppet drama, and video.

I'll Be a Monkey's Uncle. 1996. Lithograph.I'll Be a Monkey's Uncle. 1996. Lithograph.

The exhibition, which marks the first time the three series have been shown together, swells the UMCA’s main space and west gallery, with a video of a shadow puppet play on view in the museums’ east gallery. The exhibition is on loan from the collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, based in Portland, Oregon.

Walker received the MacArthur Award in 1997, only three years after completing her MFA, making her one of the youngest recipients to date.

Schnitzer, a philanthropic collector, lends to educational institutions free of charge. Of this exhibition, he states: “Kara Walker is one of the most important artists in our collection. Her art needs to be seen and the themes need to be examined. No artist today does a better job of forcing the viewers to deal with stereotypes, gender, and race.”

“There’s a narrative in all her work”—but one that, unlike text, is nonsequential and ambiguous, subject to individual interpretation, says UMCA Director Loretta Yarlow. “It inspires a visceral reaction.

“Art enables us to touch on subjects that would be hard to broach,” she continues. “These silhouettes are carved in your memory.”

All images by Kara Walker courtesy of the collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation.