Head, Heart, Hand: Ohio State University Students Respond to Blues for Smoke 3

Sun, Dec 22, 2013

Maurice Stevens, Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University, recently held a course that directly engaged students with our exhibition of Blues for Smoke. He divided the class into groups and we're sharing their responses. Today's entry comes from the Turmeric Group discussing the work of Kara Walker. For more background on this series, head here.

Turmeric Blog:  Kara Walker's Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale

The process of selecting the piece was fun. All five of us come from diverse backgrounds and we all have a wealth of information, emotion and experiences about art. Some of us had been to the Wex to explore the Blues for Smoke exhibit before we went there together as a group. But of course looking at the pieces with four other people is a whole different experience than looking at it by yourself. With all five of us exploring, we had five perspectives and it made the whole experience richer and illuminating. We met at the Wex one Thursday afternoon to see Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale. We sat on chairs, one of us on the floor and silently watched the short video. Afterwards, we gathered at Heirloom and discussed our reactions. We spoke about the artistry of the piece, the work that went into making the puppets. We had a lively discussion about the chronological order of the piece. We debated about the music and the motivations of some of the characters. We also talked about the racial politics behind Fall Frum Grace. It is curious that in the piece, a black man ends up being killed for having sexual relations with a white woman but it is the white woman who has a “fall frum grace.” We discussed Kara Walker’s decision to title the piece Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale. A lot of our engagement centered around the motivations behind centering the title around the white woman and the racial politics of around that decision.

Kara Walker was born in Stockton, California, but moved to Georgia when she was 13. She attended the Atlanta College of Art, graduating in 1991 and continued her education to receive her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. Her focus in college was painting and print-making. The 44 year old artist's preferred medium is nearly life-size paper silhouettes which she arranges in narrative sequences. Walker has said, on the simplified human form a silhouette provides, "the silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that's also what the stereotype does." She also works in film and video animation, painting, drawing, collages, cut steel, shadow puppets, and "magic-lantern" projections. Her work is frequently related to slavery in the Antebellum South, as well as relations of race, gender, sexuality and power in other manners. Kara Walker's pieces often have a nightmarish, confrontational and theatrical quality. Walker now lives and works in New York City as a professor of Visual Arts at Columbia University.

One of the clear themes of the piece is that of (forbidden) sexuality. Americans "[love] to hate what we hate to love" in Walker's words (Desire and Shame). Her work can cause viewers to feel "both attracted to and repulsed by" the figures in the artwork and their interactions with one another. “Fall Frum Grace” is no exception: the viewer is a voyeur who overlooks scenes of graphic sex between a black man and a white woman as well as the brutally violent response to this act of interracial sex (particularly in the context of the piece where fears about miscegenation ran rampant). A second theme present in the work is the interweaving of history and fantasy. In her work, Walker "does not represent a necessarily truthful depiction of history" (History, Collusion of Fact and Fiction). Walker's evidently imagined account of a white woman's affair with a slave is cut with photographs that make her scenarios a little more "real." As the man is lynched by the community at the end of the piece, Walker reminds us of the historical realities behind the lynching by briefly flashing a photograph of a burnt and mutilated body. Walker may depict "fictionalized events" but she also draws attention to the "way that official history, particularly that of African Americans, is just as constructed as her stories" (History, Collusion of Fact and Fiction). 

Jean Dubuffet, Vaches au pre (Cows in a meadow), 1954

Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection closes Dec 31. Don't miss the exhibition artnet named among the world's 25 "must-see shows."

Artists featured in Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection

Learn more about the artists represented in Transfigurations at our dedicated website. (Educators will also find curriculum resources to support their K–12 classrooms.)