An artwork by Kara Walker on loan from a private collection to the Newark Public Library has shocked some library employees and was, from late November until today, hidden from view under a cloth.
The work in question graphically demonstrates some of the horrors of black life in the South, including lynchings and a burning cross. In the foreground at lower right, a white man holds a black woman’s head to his crotch. It is on loan to the library from Scott London, a New York-based art collector.
The drawing has offended some library employees, especially African-Americans.
“I didn’t notice it at first,” Kendell Willis, a library services employee, told the Star-Ledger. “Then I looked up and was blown away.”
Sandra West, a library associate, called Walker’s work disgusting in an e-mail to library director Wilma Grey. “It can go back where it came from,” West said, also speaking to the Star-Ledger. “I really don’t like to see my people like this. We need to see something uplifting and not demeaning.”
The 6-by-9½-foot graphite and pastel on paper is titled The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos (2010).
Via her gallery, New York’s Sikkema Jenkins & Co., Walker told A.i.A., “The promise of any artwork is that it can hold us—viewer and maker—in a conflicted or contestable space, without real world injury or loss.”
Walker further said, “The work is not about slavery so much as it conjures horrors of reconstruction and 20th-century Jim Crow-ism and the Tea Party. I wanted to make a point about the way these images arose for many when Barack Obama (pictured at a little lectern on the mid-left) gave his national speech on race. And the many times he invokes his or his wife’s heritage to make an ideological point about American patriotism, which in some way grants permission to the ghosts of racist terrorism to be reimagined—here with KKK hooded figures, lynched bodies and sexual violence—and these should be horrible to behold, and should feel both familiar and uncomfortable.”
This is not the first time black viewers have expressed disapproval of Walker’s imagery. In 1997, artist Betye Saar led a campaign against Walker’s work, sending letters to people in the art world, asking, “Are African-Americans being betrayed under the guise of art?”
Other challenging work by black artists has been greeted with similar reactions. In 2011, when Fred Wilson proposed a public sculpture for Indianapolis, titled E Pluribus Unum and showing a freed slave, some in the African-American community were offended. State representative Bill Crawford said that the work perpetuated stereotypes, according to Public Radio International. “As long as we keep looking back to what we were,” Crawford said, “we are never going to be what we ought to be and what we’re going to be.”
Rachel Greene, of New York consulting firm Art & Advisory, who advises London, said that the Newark Library seemed an excellent place to lend the work.
“The library itself has a real history of engaging with art,” Greene told A.i.A. by phone Monday. “But this is just so anti-art. Not everyone has to think she’s a great artist, but the work should not be covered up.”
The piece was installed Nov. 19, Greene told A.i.A., and hidden by Nov. 24.
“I uncovered the drawing this morning,” library director Wilma Grey told A.i.A. by phone today. “I’m going to leave it that way. Several people have suggested I turn this into a teaching moment. Most librarians are very much opposed to censorship and I’m in that camp.”
“We’ll have a staff meeting very soon,” Grey added. “There’s so much for people to learn about Walker and her work and about intellectual freedom. I didn’t realize I’d be opening up a can of worms when I installed the work.”
The library has two galleries where an extensive collection is on view in several exhibitions a year. According to Grey, the holdings include about 23,000 prints, including works by some famous artists such as Picasso and Warhol.
“Libraries are all about freedom of expression,” Greene said yesterday. “Grey accepted the loan of the work. Walker’s work has been shown in Newark before. Grey had a lot of time to introduce her staff to the themes and the strategies of Walker’s work, which are certainly very confrontational.”
“This is a painful situation for Kara” in the light of the 1997 episode, Greene said. “Saar and other artists said that Walker didn’t have a right to express the unspeakable things she deals with in her work—those violent and upsetting and humiliating histories.”
“The library director should have just done a little bit of reaching out, a little bit of education—after all, it’s a library—as opposed to censoring the work,” London told A.i.A. by phone Monday.
“I understand that those who complained about the art are offended and that they didn’t sign up for this,” he added. “It’s not a museum, where you might expect to see challenging artworks. It’s a library. I want to be sympathetic to that. But I always come back to feeling that this is like burning books, or like the censorship of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
This morning, a chastened Grey said she is open to a visit from the artist to discuss the work with library employees.
“I would love to have Kara Walker come,” she said.
“I think it’s great that they unveiled it,” London told A.i.A. today. “We plan to create an informational handout at the library, and in light of everything that’s happened, we will make sure that it is sensitive and that we take in everyone’s position about the piece.”
London added, “I like that the work stirs debate. This is the best you can hope for from a piece of art like that, that it spurs conversation, and I think this is the best outcome.”