Re-Reading: I Hate Being Lion Fodder
An Interview / Conversation via Email Between Darius James and Kara Walker

In our new series “Re-Reading” we present interviews, articles, and essays from the ArtMag archive that are worth reading again from today’s perspective. Whether because the respective artists, curators, or authors are currently in the spotlight with exhibitions or projects, or because their voice of yesteryear contributes to current debates. With Kara Walker, both are the case. Until September 26, Kunstmuseum Basel is showing 600 of her works on paper in “Kara Walker - A Black Hole Is Everything A Star Longs To Be.” In October, the exhibition will move to Frankfurt’s Schirn. Deutsche Bank mounted one of the first institutional solo exhibitions of Kara Walker’s work in Europe at the Deutsche Guggenheim, and an entire floor at the bank’s Frankfurt headquarters is devoted to her works in the Deutsche Bank Collection. The online conversation with African-American author Darius James initiated by ArtMag was held in October 2002 on the occasion of Walker’s exhibition in Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier.
Published in the October 2002 issue of ArtMag

When Darius James' book Negrophobia was published in 1992, it caused a scandal. Like Kara Walker’s work, it reflected the subconscious, dreams, and fears of an America shaped by systemic racism and, like Walker’s provocative art, it met with criticism within the black civil rights movement. Their remarks on sexual abysses, Black literature, and racial stereotypes have remarkably lost little of their topicality.

Darius James: The first thing that struck me in your work was that your use of paper cutout and silhouette has the feel of folk art, grounding the work in black storytelling traditions. I like how the frozen moments of the images narrate an entire tale, sung with the wit and cunning of the blues trickster. I say "sung," because the stylistic execution is lyrical. Thus, your work simultaneously encompasses the visual, the narrative, and the musical.

I am also impressed by your satirical boldness. I don't see much of that. And when it is attempted, it isn't done well. It doesn't go for the throat. It doesn't smell blood. When Negrophobia was first published in hardback, the cover featured a white woman whose shadow was a thick-lipped, light bulb-headed coon. Some folks inside the publishing house were offended and threatened to sic the NAACP on me. Then, I kid you not, in some black bookstores, it was sold under counter in a plain brown wrapper. Now, the cover is hanging in the Smithsonian. Curiously, the people who seemed most offended by my work were middle to upper class blacks. Working class blacks, for the most part, see the humor and get the point. I tell you all this in order to ask how black people in the U.S. are reacting to your work.

Kara Walker: There have been letter-writing campaigns: once after being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1997, and once, at least so far, for the removal of one of my least offensive prints from a museum in Detroit. My work has also been lambasted in the International Review of African American Arts: 17 pages with no byline, mostly ribbing me for my hair, my white husband – nothing at all unique – too young, haven't paid my dues, etc. It was quite embarrassing and strangely obtuse that two issues of a magazine supposedly devoted to unraveling the lure of stereotypical, racist imagery should rely so heavily on stereotypical racist imagery of the kind that blacks dole out among themselves. Harvard and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. also put on a kind of niggerati circus in 1998 that I failed to attend – probably to my detriment, but I hate being lion fodder.

I read Negrophobia when I was still in grad school (I graduated in 1994) working out these notions. It was one of those good but rare occasions when I thought there might be one other person in the world that would get what I was doing. The only thing I didn't like were the pictures in between. Sorry. We're talking about a proud fine arts grad student here. I remember thinking, No, this is wrong. Those postcard coon images aren't ugly because they're ugly, they're hateful because they're cute, loveable, desirable. They feed on scatological, pedophiliac, incestuous, murderous longings and, like Jlo's children's line or ads for Babyphat, they do it in a nostalgic, seductive way.

Darius James: In your letter, you wrote that Henry Louis Gates Jr. ringmastered a niggerati circus at Harvard in 1998. What was that exactly? And why would you have been "lion fodder?"

Kara Walker: I was having a show there of a large suite of silhouette pieces. And Gates organized a weekend-long series of lectures and films around the slippery slope of race and representation. It included a panel with Betye Saar, who started a censorship/hatemail campaign against my work and against my positive reception by the art market/MacArthur Award folks, Howardina Pindell, and Michael Ray Charles (also much-hated for his pickaninny art). And from the reports of my disappointed friends, dissed because I wasn't there, Mr. Charles couldn't hold up his end of the argument – and he has an advertising background, for shame! Now, if I hadn't been on a much-anticipated trip to the German Oma and Opa, they anticipating their first and only grandchild, I would have simply sat on the stage and nursed my Quadroon baby and said nothing. I mean, you know when it comes to our sordid racist past and our sordid racist relationship with Race, there is going to be some shouting. Much of it was cross-generational.

Yeah, I was also taken aback by an ad supposedly against child sexual exploitation, which really struck me as needlessly sexy, exploiting the notion of the Beautiful Black Child wearing her poor ragged shift. She is central to the image, totally exposed in all her shame-faced beauty. Her face is in profile and cast downward, toward her white Barbie doll, which she's about to abandon. The unseen force of the image, the one we passersby are meant to identify with, is the faceless white man pulling her by the arm in the opposite direction. She's nearly spread-eagled across the image and he's shrouded in mystery, setting up the classic tension between illicit desire and access. The tagline, something like "she's a child, not a sex object," could just as easily read, "she's a child, and a sex object." It might also apply to the doll.

Darius James: When I began researching Negrophobia, along with turn-of-the-century coon images on postcards, pancake-mix boxes and tin toys, I also came across some Civil War-era editorial cartoons, some of which were as sexually explicit as your own, though without the graceful lines, of course. You seem to draw inspiration from these images, as well. I have one image in my collection of a Northern abolitionist on his knees with his tongue inserted into the rectum of a nappy-haired jungle Negress.

Race is not divorced from sexuality in the American imagination. Racism is rooted in the hypocrisy of puritanical sexuality. America's first sex shows were plantation owners overseeing that their property bred right. Did you know Joel Chandler Harris would write his fiancée love letters in Uncle Remus dialect? It was how he showed his sexual side.

Kara Walker: Mostly I am influenced by literature, particularly bad romance novels and porno, because it's a given that the reader should experience titillation. My experience also includes a heavy dose of shame, not just because maybe I should have been doing close readings of Black Feminist Theory, etc., instead of pursuing The Master's Revenge, but also because so much of that base-level literature is so raw. So much irritating fucking truth about us and our reliance on the old master/slave dialectic to define and redefine our selves and our history. I really started working this way because I was so sick of that dialectic being the guarantor of my colored gal experience. Also, I began working this way because, conversely, so much of that paradigm became my experience, when I really wasn't looking for it to do so.

Still, it feels a little bit strange to be here in cyberspace, spinning the all-too-familiar yarns on plantation imagery for a German audience that may be inclined to take that stuff at face value. I say this in a vain attempt to invite controversy. I like to think I know these Germans well. That advertisement for West cigarettes would never fly in the States – the one with the crazy disco Afro woman and the average white guy offering her his little ciggy. She's all teeth and hot red Amazonian sex. The catch phrase is "Test it."

Darius James: I've lived here for four years and, like yourself, I'm intimately involved with a German. I couldn't say, however, "I know these Germans well." But I also understand what you're saying about taking your work at face value. I might walk into a record or comic book shop and the most ig'nint fool gangsta rap will be blasting out of the speakers. I'm not condemning gangsta rap, or rap in general, or sex and violence. I'm talking about some drunken and blunted fool spewing abusive and dysfunctional bullshit that's not about anything at all, except being abusive and dysfunctional. And a lot of young Germans listen to this shit because it's supposed to be hip, not really understanding what's going on in the lyrics. If they knew, they would puke.

Going out for cigarettes this morning, I saw the specific West cigarette ad you were referring to in your letter. There are a few now. Around Christmas time, there was one featuring an Afro-haired woman in Santa's helper suit complete with reindeer. This one you are concerned with I hadn't seen until this morning. What I find interesting about the ad is this – the woman towers over the man offering her a cigarette, and she appears to be having a hearty laugh at the idea he is offering her such a small object. The image of the woman is clearly a projection of white male sexual fantasy, but white male sexual inadequacy is also implied by the image – desire and fear encompassed in a single image.

The image is not so much one of racism as it is one of exoticism. One of the things I find interesting about exoticism in the context of interracial sexual liaisons is that it is a kind of racism by mutual consent. Each party projects fantasies onto the other. If there is a solid basis to the attraction and a relationship is formed, the fantasy stage is transcended and one finds oneself dealing with the funky humanness of the other. Exotic differences are of no importance because one is dealing with the hard realities of another human being. Some people, of course, fetishize the idea of exoticism. I live in Europe. I have all manner of exotic masturbatory fantasies about women here, black, white, Middle Eastern, Asian, etc. Subverting gender/power sexual relations within a hetero context appeals to me.

Curiously, just like the stereotypes some like to believe about themselves attraction based on exoticism also occurs among exotics. For example, the fetishizing of black women as the Queen Mums of Africa within romantic black cultural nationalist thought. Or, like the East Indian and Bavarian German woman with whom I had an affair some years back, who complained about how she was being treated like an exotic by all the white boys she had been involved with. Yet, at the same time, as she had never been involved with a black man, she projected her particular fantasies onto me.

Kara Walker: I have a similar reading of the West ad, however, I was troubled by it just the same. One reason is because I'm a tall fancy-ass American black woman ("Are you a model?" or "Aren't you that model in…?" have been asked of me more than I care to recall) who has always relished the idea that I could be an exoticized sexual predator. However, my internal reality is so altogether different, so 13-year old suburban sniperish. "She was always so quiet... I can't believe she would do this." I both relish and resent those crazy-sexy-cool attitudes that seamlessly conceal internal angst. In my premarital exploits I can safely say I had a few open wounds through which I let slip the unseemly, the ironic, and the paranoiac, which leads to another favorite stereotype, the crazy-ass nigra.

Personally, I found this situation Black Amazon meets sexually frustrated white agent, – face it, in the West ad he's still doing all the offering, her laughter is passive, it's a response – iconic for the immensity of the fabrications involved, and the impossibility of sustaining the illusion of race or gender roles.

You said: "If there is a solid basis to the attraction, and a relationship is formed, the fantasy stage is transcended and one finds oneself dealing with the funky humanness of the other. Exotic differences are of no importance because one is dealing with the hard realities of another human being." But transcendence doesn't always occur. I based many a notebook page on the idea of sustaining the tension that occurs when each party only partly reveals, does an elaborate striptease with their funky humanness. Seeking fetishized comfort in the fantasy version of one's own body, in other words. Really, the ad for West cigarettes would be more to my liking if the funky chick had a revealing bulge in her pants.