CAMBRIDGE - "Everyone's a little bit racist" goes the song in the musical "Avenue Q." But many of us don't like to admit it. As long as we don't admit it, we don't have to plunge into a chasm of hurt that's aching and frightful.
Kara Walker goes there routinely in her art, brilliantly and incisively pulling the blinders away to expose viewers' worst dreams and fears about race and power. To mark the inauguration of Harvard University's new president, Drew Gilpin Faust, a Civil War scholar, the Fogg Art Museum has mounted a brief exhibition of 15 prints from Walker's series "Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)."
Searing and explosive, these prints give just a taste of Walker's epic, if narrowly focused narrative scope (for a larger helping, see her current retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York). The artist works with silhouettes, cutting out figures that tell violent and darkly comic tales of slavery in a Victorian-era medium that has the romantic whiff of cameos and valentines.
There's nothing sweet about these black-on-white pieces, which suggest the stenches of sweat, blood, sex, and excrement. Walker's black silhouettes of imagined Civil War-era characters function as shadow figures onto which artist and viewer project fears, woes, and nightmares.
For this series, Walker has screen printed her silhouettes over enlarged lithographic reproductions from the Harper's book, published in 1866 and 1868. The book recounts and illustrates battles and sieges; it's a war story, by and large populated by soldiers, officers, and government officials - mostly white men.
Walker imposes her shadow figures atop these landscapes of conquest and defeat, reminding us what's missing from many of the original lithographs, the very source of all the strife: enslaved men and women.
Her images are often inscrutable. It's hard to tell what a figure is doing, but that ambiguity pulls the viewer deeper into the story. Look at "Buzzard's Roost Pass," a scene that shows where the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge, part of the Atlanta Campaign, began in May 1864. The Harper's print depicts columns of Union troops neatly marching toward the front. Cannon fire sets off pale, starry explosions against the mountainside in the distance.
Above floats Walker's addition: a black woman's face and upper body, ripped apart as if she were a parade float that had just popped. The stars of cannon fire echo in her eye and cheek; her neck is torn raggedly, as is her hand, which hovers over her head. Her two breasts float in opposite directions across the mountain. Yet her mouth eerily widens into a wild grin.
She's been blown to bits, as if she doesn't matter, and indeed, in some horrible way, she doesn't. She has no authority, no say in the war being fought over the economic and moral issues of slavery. They hinge on her position, yet she's barely even a bystander. At the same time, her grin suggests that she does hold sway. Her power is not political, but to those who might ignore, fear, or push her away, she's a nightmare.
In "Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats," Walker's silhouette of a black woman appears to be floating or falling alongside the much smaller lithographic figures of Union supporters swarming the banks of the Tennessee River. She's giant, yet she's being stampeded. The Harper's print features, among the hoard, a black woman carrying a white baby, and a black tot left dangerously on the ground. With Walker's silhouette, they make a trio of abandoned and abandoning souls.
In "Exodus of Confederates from Atlanta," Walker makes a silhouette within a silhouette, cutting in profile the head of a black person from inside the profile of a girl of indeterminate race. A similar motif appears in "Pack-Mules in the Mountains," in which the silhouette of a man's head - from his hair, I'd guess he's white - contains the cutout of an armless slave boy with a withered foot, carrying a bucket and a hoe with a yoke. The form is serene, even noble, and suggests the degree to which the identities of everyone in the Civil War-era South were intertwined and interdependent - black and white, young and old, whole and infirm.
Walker is fearless. She panders to no one, and she has caught heat from some African-American artists who read her work, and its sometimes lurid depictions of black men and women, as catering to the vilest fantasies of racists. Rather, she demands that we look at the lust, violence, rage, and ravaging of innocence that slavery inflicted and racism inflicts. She points no fingers. She merely asks us to open our eyes.