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Newark Library Patrons Offended by Kara Walker’s Controversial Artwork

An artwork by Kara Walker on loan from a private collection to the Newark Public Library has shocked some library employees and was, from late November until today, hidden from view under a cloth.

The work in question graphically demonstrates some of the horrors of black life in the South, including lynchings and a burning cross. In the foreground at lower right, a white man holds a black woman’s head to his crotch. It is on loan to the library from Scott London, a New York-based art collector.

The drawing has offended some library employees, especially African-Americans.

“I didn’t notice it at first,” Kendell Willis, a library services employee, told the Star-Ledger. “Then I looked up and was blown away.”

Sandra West, a library associate, called Walker’s work disgusting in an e-mail to library director Wilma Grey. “It can go back where it came from,” West said, also speaking to the Star-Ledger. “I really don’t like to see my people like this. We need to see something uplifting and not demeaning.”

The 6-by-9½-foot graphite and pastel on paper is titled The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos (2010).

Via her gallery, New York’s Sikkema Jenkins & Co., Walker told A.i.A., “The promise of any artwork is that it can hold us—viewer and maker—in a conflicted or contestable space, without real world injury or loss.”

Walker further said, “The work is not about slavery so much as it conjures horrors of reconstruction and 20th-century Jim Crow-ism and the Tea Party. I wanted to make a point about the way these images arose for many when Barack Obama (pictured at a little lectern on the mid-left) gave his national speech on race. And the many times he invokes his or his wife’s heritage to make an ideological point about American patriotism, which in some way grants permission to the ghosts of racist terrorism to be reimagined—here with KKK hooded figures, lynched bodies and sexual violence—and these should be horrible to behold, and should feel both familiar and uncomfortable.”

This is not the first time black viewers have expressed disapproval of Walker’s imagery. In 1997, artist Betye Saar led a campaign against Walker’s work, sending letters to people in the art world, asking, “Are African-Americans being betrayed under the guise of art?”

Read more: Brian Boucher, Art in America


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