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Kara Walker’s Controversial Artwork Bared Again at Newark Library

The painting that caused such a ruckus at the Newark Public Library is uncovered again, viewable to all, and the controversy around it gone.

Last month, several library staff members were up in arms because they didn’t think the art was appropriate. They made such a fuss that it was covered up a day after being hung in the second-floor reference room.

The huge drawing was done by Kara Walker, a renowned African-American artist whose themes deal with race, gender, sexuality and violence. This piece depicts the horrors of reconstruction, 20th-century Jim Crow effects and hooded figures of the Ku Klux Klan.

The controversy surrounds the depiction of  a white man holding the head of a naked black woman to his groin, her back to the viewer.

Library Director Wilma Grey didn’t think displaying the drawing was a problem, but she covered it with fabric after complaints. Walker wasn’t happy about that, neither was Scott London, a longtime art collector who loaned the piece to the library.

“I thought we were past that,’’ he said. “I was surprised.”

Since then, there has been an airing of views. The shroud is gone and everyone can see  the work.

Kendell Willis, an employee, said he had a better understanding of the library’s position, after the meeting with officials.

“They said there are a lot of things in artwork we don’t want to talk about, and that made absolute sense,’’ he said.

That’s what they’ll do now. Grey and library trustees plan to invite Walker to talk about the work, artistic freedom and the role of black artists in society.

“The library should be a safe harbor for controversies of all types, and those controversies can be dealt with in the context of what is known about art, about literature, democracy and freedom,” said Clement A. Price, a library trustee and Rutgers history professor. “There’s no better venue in Newark where such a powerful and potential controversial drawing should be mounted.”

The irony here is the Newark Public Library in the 1950s covered a giant mural that was considered offensive. It showed male nudity in a painting by R.H. Ives Gammell. The painting, “The Fountain of Knowledge,” stayed hidden for 35 years until it was uncovered in the 1980s. It’s still there now, on the second floor.

Just as that mural rubbed folks the wrong way, Price said, the portrayal of the black American experience is a sensitive issue as well.

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