IN CONVERSATION WITH PAUL VAN DE WATERLAAT
A recent exhibition centered around the work from the New York-based black woman artist Kara Walker (1969) sent shockwaves through my hometown of Tilburg. Content warnings, trigger warnings, some said it was ‘unsuitable for children’, my friends called it ‘rough stuff’, and a local newspaper headline read ‘Brace Yourself’. The exhibition at the contemporary art museum De Pont was titled ‘A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs To Be’ and consisted of works that ‘we’, the predominantly white visitors of the museum, are not used to see. I am interested to find out why looking at the work of Walker was experienced by so many as shocking. Or more precisely: how does Kara Walker’s work challenge predominant looking relations in this exhibition?
A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs to Be
The show consists of more than 600 works, ranging from sketches to studies, from collages to finished works. Most of the works came directly from her personal archives and were never made with the intention to be exhibited, resulting in an overwhelming amount of work consisting of words, images, drawings, documentation and cutout silhouettes. Walker refers to her own work as “a candid investigation of race, gender, sexuality, and violence”. The works indeed portray excessive violence, sexual abuse, suffering and death, with references to slavery, sexism and racial injustices. This show was the final stop of this traveling exhibition, after having premiered in Kunstmuseum Basel and having been on display at Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt.
The Power of Looking
This exhibition has been one of the most memorable ones I have seen in Museum de Pont. Not just for its amazing artistic value, but also the tangible destabilizing effect it had to the white cube and people visiting, including me. My analysis will be from the ‘visuality’ of the exhibition of Walker’s work. Prof. Gillian Rose defines visuality as: “how we are able, allowed, or made to see and how we see this seeing and unseeing therein”. In other words: how relations of power play a part in the way in which I have the ability to see and the way in which I am presented with the visual material. John Berger refers to Ways of seeing as not just a look towards something, but how “we are always looking at the relation between the thing and ourselves”. In other words, looking is influenced by personal and cultural constructions and are therefore subjective. I think visuality, as a complex array of dynamics, is central to processes of signification in Kara Walker’s exhibition. I will explore this by focusing specifically on three types of looking relations present in Walker’s work: The oppositional gaze, black female spectatorship into the collective unconscious and finally on through politics of discomfort and the privilege of looking away.
I. The Artist’s Oppositional Gaze
The gaze refers to one’s perspective on the world. Women and people of colour have mostly been represented as objects of the male gaze in art and popular culture. bell hooks elaborates on the possibility of resistance through looking in her essay ‘The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators’. hooks argues that there is always a possibility of power and agency by looking back and interrogating the dominant gaze, however oppressive it might be. Walker’s ‘The Welcoming Committee’ is a great example of how the artist’s oppositional gaze works to oppose and interrogate (art) history, artistic methods and techniques through an artistic gaze and how this influences her visuality.
The work depicts a table with a skeleton on it. There seems to be a doorway behind it, blocked by a line of hazy white people that seem to be studying the corpse. Around it there are numerous ghostly images of different people. I see the ghostly white people as signifiers of the hegemonic power structure: the ruling class and oppressors, with the power to control life and death. They are surrounded by ghostly images of people of colour who lost their lives on the account of racial violence. The most recent example is the person in the front wearing the hoodie. This figure refers to Trayvon Martin, who was killed at 17 years old by a member of the local community watch in 2012 for looking ‘suspicious’. Though put on trial, the shooter was acquitted by the (predominantly white) jury on grounds of self-defense.
Anatomy Lessons of Colonial (art) History
The work itself responds to Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’ (1632) and refers to ‘snatching’, a practice of digging up deceased and already buried black bodies for research during the 18th and 19th century. In referencing Rembrandt, Walker places this work in the art tradition, only this time not the white men are central to the work, but the skeleton is. Not life, but death is central to this work. By responding to this classical painting and forcibly adding deceased black bodies into it, Walker interrogates the historical painting of Rembrandt in a way that the consequences of the white practice of gaining knowledge is now made visible. In a way, Walker completes history by including those who suffered from the construction of dominant (medical) knowledges.
On: What Now?
I imagine ‘The Welcoming Committee’ to be the group of deceased black bodies welcoming yet another casualty of white racial violence. Judging by their outfits, they are black bodies from different times and places. From tribal communities to enslaved people, from historical to contemporary times. In other words, black lives are lost on account of white practices for a very long time. There is also a contrast of demeanor between the gesticulating deceased people and the people behind the table, calmly passively looking around, one wonders if they even see the ghosts around them.
It is here that I find an essence in Walker’s visuality throughout the exhibition. Author Ayrton van Noort puts this into words when writing about the exhibition in the art magazine Mister Motley, stating that when the visitor has overcome the first shock of the explicit nature of Walker’s work, “It is [then] like she looks at us and asks: what do we do now?”. This is a great example of the oppositional gaze at work. By defiantly looking back, Walker forcibly claims a rightful space in history for the people who perished and asks: what now? Now that I am affectively and cognitively made aware by witnessing racial injustices (that still happen today), I am made complicit and cannot look away anymore. Now it is no longer just her question, it has also become mine. I now find myself, another white body, staring at the drawing in exactly the same passive way as the white people in the work stare at the ghosts around them. So the question is indeed, what now?
II. Black Female Spectatorship into the Collective Unconscious
Walker’s work has often been explained as consisting of imagery from the collective unconscious. With the anatomy lessons fresh in mind, I will draw upon an artist statement to help me glimpse into this layer of Walker’s work. In reading the above statement my mind wanders off to bell hooks again, this time to her notion of black female spectatorship. hooks explains how the right to look was once taken from black bodies, especially black women of colour, and suggests that this accounts for a specific kind of spectatorship today. Unconsciousness is defined by professor of art history Kaja Silvermann, as “the part of the mind not accessible to consciousness except in disguised form [dreams for example]. It contains repressed materials, forbidden impulses, taboo, recollections etc”. According to psychiatrist Carl Jung the collective unconscious is shared by every human being and it consists of archetypes and “primordial images and ideas.”
“My work reveals images that I too am shocked to encounter in the dark alleys of my imagination. You may be seduced, you may be out- raged. Therein lay the unspeakable trappings of our visual codes.” – Kara Walker 
These ‘dark alleys of the imagination’ can be read as those parts of the mind that are not easily accessible. In this sentence it is almost like she circumvents the conscious mind, that the creation of art is an intuitive process fueled by images from dark places of the imagination. The fact that Walker, too, is shocked by these images is significant for her looking relation to her audience. It seems like we take this journey together, alongside each other. ‘The spectator may be seduced or outraged’ serves as an acknowledgement of the emotional resonance the imagery has. However, in no way is Walker softening the blow for the spectator. If anything, she is asking us to keep looking, no matter how uncomfortable. ‘The unspeakable trappings of our visual codes’ can be read as collective taboos, buried in our collective unconsciousness, something we don’t speak about but can make its way into our imagery and representational practices.
A Curated Collective Journey
Walker is making the unconscious reality of the black woman spectator visible by using nightmarish aesthetics: almost directly retrieved images from the unconscious, dripping with trauma and violence, and seems to ask the audience: “I know, I am shocked too, but look what I found”. This is one of the special characteristics of Walker’s work, the unapologetic violence in the imagery that makes a part of our collective history visible that we tend to bury, for it is unbearable to live with. Through Walker’s work we look at it together with the artist. This collective journey is also central to the curation of the exhibition, as it consists of not only finished work, but also unfinished sketches and documentations that were considered ‘too personal to present’ by the artist before this exhibit. This generates a sense that she not only opens her archives, but also lets me join in on a journey to the intuitive reality of black female spectatorship into our collective unconscious.
III. Shock and (trigger) warnings: Politics of Discomfort and the Privilege of Looking
Looking comes – for some of us – with the privilege of looking away. In this final section I will analyse the way in which privilege is at work in the context of the exhibition: a white cube in Tilburg, deeply entrenched in white patriarchal traditions, where the visitors are predominantly white. De Pont is known to me (and many others) as a calm, aesthetic museum-space where I have never experienced an exhibition that was this ‘political’ before. Walker’s invitation to keep looking as she overwhelmingly shows us parts of the collective unconsciousness, raises questions on the politics of discomfort. How does the context of the museum deal with discomfort, and how does it -still- actively provide for possibilities of looking away?
Dealing with Discomfort
Prof. Rachel Chadwick explains how discomfort as an affective state can cause the body to avoid engaging in the topics that cause it. Chadwick’s use of this term specifically refers to “whiteness and other modes of social and material privilege.” While one can choose not to be in discomfort by looking away, Chadwick argues that it is actually a rewarding and important effort to stay with the discomfort. In the previous sections I have deliberated on how Walker’s oppositional gaze and her black woman spectatorship cannot – and will not – look away. She indeed remains unapologetically ‘candid’ in her personal and historical research of racial and sexual violence in (art) history. By curating an exhibition that addresses racial and sexual injustice, museum De Pont actively stays with the discomfort, but also provides means of looking away, A good example of this can be found in the warnings.
The Privilege of Looking Away
The local newspaper Brabants Dagblad wants me to brace myself, the national newspaper Volkskrant warns me about the potentially shocking work, so do friends who have visited the exhibition, and the museum puts up a content warning upon entry of the exhibition space. When asked, Wieteke van Zeil, art historian and reviewer at the Volkskrant, stated during a live broadcast of the talkshow M. that she understands the need for a ‘trigger warning’ because she did not feel like Walker’s art would be suitable for her kids to see. This is also the first time I have seen any kind of warning in De Pont. All these warnings reached me before I physically reached the actual show.
In Jack Halberstam’s critique on trigger warnings he separates the trigger warning from the content warning. A trigger warning can be seen as a cautionary note about violent or sexual explicit content. Halberstam argues that the “trigger warning conforms to a normative structure of surveillance” and assumes what is harmful to another person, taking away agency for the people attempting to protect themself. A content warning is a disclaimer on the content of the work, which was used by De Pont to warn the visitors on the explicit imagery of the artworks. Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, the second stop of the exhibition, additionally noted that the exhibit was unsuitable for children.
Apparently, Walker’s work questions the white European affective historical narrative so radically, that predominant ways of seeing should be protected against discomfort and that for some, it should even be kept out of sight of our children. I do not argue that trigger- and content warnings should be removed or attempt to downplay its importance for some of us, it is just the (sheer number of) warnings in this case that serve as a painful reminder that the (white) visitor, like me, is institutionally facilitated with the privilege to look away, where the artist cannot. This sits uneasy with the artist’s genuine invitation to keep looking.
Finally, to respond to the question why people are shocked by the nightmarish depictions of racial and sexual violence in Walker’s work, I believe that through the collective unconscious, like the individual unconscious, we store memories that are unbearable to live with. And overtime, we forget them. There is privilege in forgetting. When an artist like Walker drenches these images up and shows them back to me, I am shocked, but not really surprised. The white cube museum was a great place to show this exhibition, and also made it painfully clear that some of us can walk away, and can decide not to look. I felt invited to keep looking. After all this, still the question remains: what do we do now? For now, I will attempt to stay with the discomfort, whether that means sitting on a museum bench for four hours straight, or writing an article on the subject and publishing it on this great museumplatform.
The exhibition ‘A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs To Be’ was on show at De Pont Museum in Tilburg from 19 February 2022 to 24 July 2022.
Paul van de Waterlaat is artist and performer working in the field of theatre and visual arts. He is currently a student in the MA Gender Studies Program. His work and interests revolve around identity formation, performativity of gender, performance art, fashion and visuality. He is co-artistic director of performance company Zwermers and within his art-project Herstory he works on the intersections of historiography, gendered clothing, visual- and performing arts.
 Gilian Rose, “Visual Methodologies,” in Researching With Visual Materials, (Los Angeles: SAGE Publishing Ltd. 2016), 2.
 Gilian Rose, “Visual Methodologies,” in Researching With Visual Materials, (Los Angeles: SAGE Publishing Ltd. 2016), 13.
 Stuart Hall, “The Spectacle of the Other,” in Representation, ed. Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon (London, Sage in association with The Open University, 2013), 258.
 bell hooks, “The Oppositional gaze: Black Female Spectators”, in Black looks : race and representation, (New York : Routledge, 2015), 116.
 Gordon Avery and Angela Davis, “More on Positive and Negative Images: The Case of Kara Walker, Artist,” in Keeping good Time, reflections on Knowledge, Power and People. (London, Taylor and Francis Group, 2004), 160.
 Kaja Silverman, “Primary and Secondary Processes”, in Subject of Semiotics, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 55.
 Gordon Avery and Angela Davis, “More on Positive and Negative Images: The Case of Kara Walker, Artist,” in Keeping good Time, reflections on Knowledge, Power and People. (London: Taylor and Francis Group, 2004), 161.
 Anita Haldemann, “Kara Walkers Drawings: “A Dance of Skepticism and Faith,”” in Kara Walker, A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs to Be, ed. Anita Haldermann (Geneva: Jrp Ringier, 2020), 561.
 M, “Ze nodigt ons uit om over het verleden na te denken,” interview by M, NPOStart, Feb 22, 2022.
 Jack Halberstam, “Trigger Happy: From Content Warning to Censorship,” Signs Journal, winter, 2017.
 M, “Ze nodigt ons uit om over het verleden na te denken,” interview by M, NPOStart, Feb 22, 2022.
BOOKS & ARTICLES
Avery, Gordon and Angela Davis. “More on Positive and Negative Images: The Case of Kara Walker, Artist.” In Keeping good Time, reflections on Knowledge, Power and People. London, Taylor and Francis Group, 2004.
Haldemann, Anita. “Kara Walkers Drawings: “A Dance of Skepticism and Faith.”” In Kara Walker, A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs to Be, edited by Anita Haldemann, 561. Geneva: Jrp Ringier, 2020.
Hall, Stuart. “The Spectacle of the Other.” In Representation, edited by Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon, XVII – XXVI. London, Sage in association with The Open University, 2013.
hooks, bell. “The Oppositional gaze: Black Female Spectators”. In Black looks : race and representation. New York : Routledge, 2015.
Rose, Gilian. “Visual Methodologies.” In Researching With Visual Materials. Los Angeles: SAGE Publishing Ltd., 2016.
Silverman, Kaja. “Subject of Semiotics”. New York, Oxford University Press, 1983.
NEWS AND MAGAZINE ARTICLES
Chadwick, Rachelle. “Reflecting on discomfort in research.” LSE Impact blog, Februari 24, 2021.
Halberstam, Jack. “Trigger Happy: From Content Warning to Censorship.” Signs Journal, Winter, 2017.
Noort, Ayrton van. “Over Kara Walker in De Pont.” Mr. Motly, May 5, 2022.
Steenbekkers, Annemiek. “Zet je schrap want dit is heftige kost: Kara Walker in De Pont.” Brabants dagblad, February 19, 202
Brettanica. Accessed June 20, 2022.
M.“Ze nodigt ons uit om over het verleden na te denken.” interview by M. M, NPOStart, February 22, 2022.
Walker, Kara. “Biography”. Accessed May 25, 2022.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. “Kara Walker.” Accessed Oct 12, 2022.