Kara Walker (American, born 1969)
I'll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, 1996
In the lithograph I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, Walker opens the Pandora’s box of American racist iconography with typical fearlessness. Depicting on the left an archetypal pickaninny--a young black girl with unkempt hair, ragged clothes, and bare feet--and a long-tailed monkey in male clothing standing on a stump on the right, the work is rife with charged allusions. The monkey's tail loops forward to become a phallus pointing at the girl, and the dripping do-rag, hair braid, or disembodied tail held aloft by the girl suggests amputation, castration, or possibly even the scalping of a white woman for her desirable, straight "good hair." The work’s title also conjures up false associations of people of African descent with apes and a lower rung on the evolutionary ladder.
Walker discovered that the very flatness and emptiness of the silhouette medium provided a powerful vehicle for traversing the minefield of racial representation:
I had a catharsis looking at early American varieties of silhouette cuttings. . . . What I recognized, besides narrative and historicity and racism, was this very physical displacement: the paradox of removing a form from a blank surface that in turn creates a black hole. I was struck by the irony of so many of my concerns being addressed: blank / black, hole/whole, shadow/substance, etc. (3)
I’ll Be a Monkey's Uncle may be open-ended, offering little resolution for age-old problems. But the work's black humor and black imagery, along with its title--a common expression of consternation--provocatively remind us of the urgent need to evolve beyond our exasperating and poisonous fixations on race.
1. The present entry builds on ideas and research the author developed in The Old, Weird America, exh. cat. (Houston: Museum of Contemporary Arts Houston, 2008), which surveys the
resurgence of folk themes in contemporary American art.