The Montclair Art Museum knows it’s going to ruffle feathers with the exhibition “Kara Walker: Virginia’s Lynch Mob and Other Works,” opening September 15. But that’s sort of the point, says guest curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw.
“The work is intentionally provocative. It’s intended to get people angry about history, angry about the present and angry about being angry,” says Shaw, an associate professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (Duke University Press, 2004).
Walker, 48, is known for her disturbing and challenging images about the legacy of slavery in America. The title work in the Montclair
show is a 40-foot paper silhouette from 1998 depicting a girl being chased by a mob, including a man with a noose and a little girl with a KKK hood. Newer works among the 24 to be displayed include sculpture, drawings and film stills. Sex and violence, in addition to race, are explored unflinchingly, as might be expected of an artist who was the subject of a letter-writing campaign in the 1990s in which more than 200 black artists argued against the exhibition of her work, calling its depiction of African-Americans “visual terrorism.”
New Jersey is familiar territory for Walker, who lives in Brooklyn but is the Tepper Chair in Visual Arts at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers in New Brunswick. In 2012, prior to her appointment at Rutgers, employees of the Newark Public Library questioned the appropriateness of a Walker piece hanging in a reading room. It was temporarily covered until Walker visited to discuss the work. Shaw hopes Walker will “poke her nose in” for a peek at the new show, which runs until January 6. But she won’t be surprised if Walker doesn’t.
“She’s not an artist who goes and gives talks at museums,” says Shaw. “She’s had to dial back her appearances because she’s become a lightning rod for people’s anger.”