Art exhibits from nationally recognized contemporary artist seldom visit Eugene. But until April 6, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art will be showing Kara Walker’s Emancipating the Past.
This exhibit by Walker, who is — according to an article by the Eugene Weekly — the youngest recipient of the MacArthur grant, and one of Time Magazine’s most influential people of 2007, is a 60-piece exhibit from Jordan Schnitzer’s collection, featuring portrayals of slavery and African-American history in the U.S. Walker uses unconventional silhouette methods to convey her messages by invoking shocking elements of violence and sexuality.
Museum exhibit coordinator extern Jessica DiTillio wrote her master’s thesis on Walker’s art.
“It was a really popular form during the 19th century, but considered cheap and disposable, so there’s an implication to her referencing this art form that was popular during this particularly oppressive era and elevating it to a grand scale,” DiTillio said. “It’s a metaphor for a stereotype. You get minimal information, this outline, yet you’re able to infer the story … say ‘white character’ or ‘black character.’”
This 26 frame series is Walker’s impression of the period following the Emancipation Proclamation, incorporating themes of death, emasculation of African males and swans to symbolize white masters raping female slaves.
The first eight screen prints occupy white backdrops, but at the ninth frame they become gray. DiTillio proposes this is suggestive of an adjustment — a “literal mixing of black and white.” This is not to suggest that the images become any more harmonious at this point. The final panel features a pensive female silhouette leaning against a stump with an axe standing beside it and is surrounded by decapitated heads.
Walker’s brand of commentary displays the horrors of the Antebellum South with anarchy and brutality, and therefore, has drawn its share of criticism. Yet Jordan Schnitzer feels nothing but appreciation for the exhibit.
“I admire her for being willing to stand and say this is important, to say never forget … these themes are personal, to me and this university,” Schnitzer said. “When I see her work, it grabs me and won’t let me go.”
DiTillio shares this sentiment.
“It’s very moving when you see it in person. There’s this heavy emotional impact that you can’t escape,” DiTillo said.
No well-informed individual would deny that race relations remain an extremely prevalent and emotionally charged issue in America. Walker’s art depicts the past, but the relevance of her commentary extends into the present.
“If there’s one institution that has the opportunity to, and must deal with the issues of our time, of racial intolerance, of inequality of the sexes, of man and woman’s inhumanity to each other, it is this campus,” Schnitzer said. “The discussion of these issues is not an option; it’s a must and a requirement.”
Schnitzer could not emphasize this point enough.
“It’s a tragedy, in my opinion, if every student doesn’t get over to see this exhibit. I’ve always said you can’t wear the art out by having too many eyes look at it.”
Emancipating the Past will be at the JSMA until April 6.