The Historical Value and Intellectual Merits of Kara Walker’s Diversionary Tactics

Virtue? A fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus
 – Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello

My son Eneko is turning 8 on Tuesday and we’re having his birthday party today. As we set up the giant piñata in the shape of the number 8 and hope for the sun to shine on our festivities, I cannot help but think that this is his first birthday that we celebrate under the ever darkening clouds of the Trump regime. (At breakfast he asked me not to mention Trump’s name on the day of his party!). Yesterday I asked a friend of mine from Athens to send the Greek sun to warm us on this day and for those of you reading this in Greece, there are only a few hours left to see Kara Walker’s Figa at the Deste Foundation Project Space, in the Slaughterhouse on the island of Hydra.

If, like me, you missed seeing this island installation of the left hand of the sphinx-like monument of the artist’s 2014 A Subtlety exhibition in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory (which I also didn’t see, but which I wrote about here, a few days before Trump’s inauguration), you can still make it to Sikkema Jenkins & Co to catch the Walker’s solo exhibition, which is on show until October 14th. The unforgettable title of the exhibition is:

Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!

And it continues to run on into the press release as follows:

The reference to ‘Final President of the United States’ is picked up in the artist’s statement, in which Walker expresses her exhaustion in her expected position as resistance role-model in these brutal times:

I don’t really feel the need to write a statement about a painting show. I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point. But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of “having a voice” or worse “being a role model.” Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche. It’s too much, and I write this knowing full well that my right, my capacity to live in this Godforsaken country as a (proudly) raced and (urgently) gendered person is under threat by random groups of white (male) supremacist goons who flaunt a kind of patched together notion of race purity with flags and torches and impressive displays of perpetrator-as-victim sociopathy. I roll my eyes, fold my arms and wait.

But the press release and the artist’s statement are not the only places in the exhibition that Walker addresses Trump and the hatred he stands for. See, for example, the James Ensor-inspired work Christ’s Entry into Journalism, 2017.

If you look in the bottom-left corner, you can catch a glimpse of his likeness:

In spite of this explicit reference, Walker still manages to utilize the diversionary tactics that make scholars like me study and debate the historical value and intellectual merits of her work in other ways. For example, her phrase ‘the Final President’ reminded me of the myth of the Last Roman Emperor in Christian Late Antique Roman and Byzantine culture. This myth is part of an apocalyptic tradition, in both the East and the West of the empire, and imagines that a time would come when a Roman Emperor would face a bitter enemy, defeat the evil and as a result surrender his imperial insignia to God, putting an end to the Roman Empire. This surrender would be an acknowledgment of the meaninglessness of the victory of the enemy and an imagined evil and the final act of historical time before the true surrender to the kingdom of God. As such, unlike in the thought of St. Augustine, the end would take place within history and not beyond it.

To return to Trump, if he is indeed the ‘Final President’, what apocalyptic vision does Walker’s appropriation of Ensor’s 1889 Christ’s Entry into Brussels foresee? These are admittedly gloomy thoughts for my son’s birthday party, but it is on days like this, amid our exhaustion with relentless political brutality and our more intimate celebrations of life, that we need to ask ourselves (especially if we are atheists who cannot hold onto a ‘pie in the sky’ messianic vision of the world), what is it we actually want to see coming appearing on the horizon of our future?

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