Kara Walker (b. 1969) Untitled (Girl with Bucket) each: numbered '1 of 2' to '2 of 2' (on the reverse) paper cut-outs, in two parts dimensions variable overall, approximately: 80 x 55in. (203.2 x 139.7cm.) Executed in 1998
St. Louis, The Forum, Kara Walker, March-May 1998.
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A girl in the clothing of the past and adult shoes marches on under a banner vast enough to dwarf her; she is oblivious of the slapstick fate that awaits her in the form of the full bucket, only a step away... In Untitled (Girl with Bucket), executed in 1998, Kara Walker presents us with an image that is designed to muddle ideas and stereotypes. The exaggerated physiognomy of the girl is designed to evoke the African features of a slave from the age of yore, from the Southern states before the Civil War and emancipation. This effect is heightened by the antique, Gone with the Wind look of the clothes. There is an element of cartoonish humour to Untitled (Girl with Bucket), but it is deliberately undermined and subverted by content and context. In terms of content, the banner calls to mind the civil rights marches of the 1950s and 1960s, invoking the issues of race and racism that are so central to Walker's work. In terms of context, the fact that this image-- which appears to lampoon the civil rights movement, echoing the political cartoons of the racist and especially segregationist establishment of former generations-- has been created by a prominent black artist introduces a deep and highly volatile complexity. The act of interpretation results in interpretations that are accusatory and that result in self-accusation and self-awareness, Walker bringing the ideas and prejudices of racists and African Americans alike to light.
Walker's art is a minefield. Her acute sensitivity to questions of history and race and her complex treatment of them have resulted in her being celebrated as a heroine and condemned as a perpetuator of stereotypes in almost equal measure, not least in the controversy that surrounded her being awarded the MacArthur Foundation scholarship the year before Untitled (Girl with Bucket) was executed. Unlike many of the other African American artists who deal with issues of racism and blackness, Walker presents a morally ambiguous view where the divides between victim and victimiser are murky, where the formerly sacrosanct assumed righteousness of the activist is discarded with gusto, replaced by an image that is both condemnatory and self-condemnatory. For surely on one level, the girl represents Walker herself, carrying her banner, assuming a great responsibility, wearing 'inherited' shoes too large for an artist then still in her 20s, bringing complex issues to light, painfully aware of the Schadenfreude that her encounter with the bucket will elicit from too many sides if she fails to keep her feet on the ground.