The work of a widely known contemporary African-American artist is displayed at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art through April 6.
Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power includes work from a variety of different mediums, but her style is recognizable and distinct. Typically, she uses stark black-and-white silhouette pieces.
“The medium that Kara Walker chooses, which is this 19th-century Victorian silhouette, what is usually this sterile, very composed, black outline – mainly profiles, things you’d give to your grandmother, or things you made in elementary school for Valentine’s Day,” museum Communications Manager Debbie Williamson-Smith said. “But one of the most powerful things about this medium is it really allows the viewers to fill in the blanks with their own assumptions.”
The gallery is filled with several different examples of materials and mediums Walker uses. Black silhouette steel cutouts depict miniature scenes. Faces are painted over enlarged copies of “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War,” and at the end of the gallery is a room in which a puppeteered video plays continuously on a loop. All of these pieces still incorporate Walker’s bold signature style.
“Even as you’re walking through, and what you think might be a white person or what you think might be an African-American person — is it really? She’s using the silhouette to kind of play on the story,” Smith said. “It’s allowing the viewer to tell a fairly horrific tale of our past through this beautiful medium.”
Walker’s art addresses racism, misrepresentation of the past, violence and sex, among other provocative topics.
“Expect to let go of all your perceptions, your assumptions, and let the art talk to you,” Smith said. “I think the subject matter is horrific. I think the artist uses sexuality as an exploration of that.”
North Eugene High School counselor Aura Solomon was in awe of Walker’s work.
“It’s brilliant. She is very brave. I need to attempt to be as brave,” she said. “I came here planning to bring high school students later on. I am struck by Kara Walker’s brilliance and talent and courage to depict these images.”
While Solomon thinks it’s important for high school students to visit this exhibit, she said she would need to receive special permission from the school and the students’ parents, due to the graphic nature of some pieces.
“How do we successfully teach an accurate viewing of history if something like these beautifully disturbing, violent and sexual images are our history?” Solomon said.
The nature of this show demands a specific type of viewer.
“I think that the film especially is geared toward an older audience,” Smith said. “In our tours, we’re really steering it to the high school level and not middle school. There’s some content geared for older audiences.”
Retired English teacher Jane Muchalli learned about Kara Walker through a PBS documentary and was very excited to hear her exhibit was coming to Eugene.
“It’s about black and white history. Be ready to experience it,” she said.
The museum encourages the on-lookers to document and share their experience through the exhibit.
“We always have ways to give feedback in the museum and we’re really trying to focus on ‘what are you thinking?’ and ‘what are you feeling?’” Smith said, motioning to notebooks on the gallery table.
“‘Powerful’ is the word that I keep hearing the most,” she said. “Hopefully, through the programs that we’ve created, we’re able to have some great conversations about race relations in our country.”
In one of the guest books, one anonymous visitor wrote, “Profound! To be confronted with my own bias. Wow.”
This exhibit is free to all Lane faculty and students with valid school identification.