“This woman’s body is like our history, starting from places of darkest mystery and capable of bringing to light New Worlds,” states the text on he right page from Kara Walker’s Freedom: A Fable
. Opposite reclines a birthing figure, a black woman who is smoking a pipe as children emerge from between her legs. The text reflects the same sentiment as Nancy Spero’s figures in Artemisia II
at the end of the gallery: the cyclical journey of life begins, ends, and begins anew within the female body. However, Walker’s figure has not—cannot—find freedom in her physical body. Instead, her figure comments on the continuing legacy of slavery in the United States, the theft of female agency and denial of the right to have, own, and use one’s own body on one’s own terms. As Walker asks, “Is this a rebirth, or is this a slow death for which one can only seek life’s blood?”
From the exhibition: Birthing Bodies (September 30 – December 30, 2017)
At first, Kara Walker’s Freedom, a Fable—A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times recalls the style of a children’s pop-up book, eliciting feelings of innocence and sweetness. As with much of Walker’s work, it seduces viewers with visually stimulating, seemingly whimsical silhouettes, then confronts them in uncomfortable and disagreeable ways with issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality.
Walker’s book tells the story of N— a black female slave freed following the Civil War. Despite the promise of emancipation, N— continues to face the abuse of her owner and dreams of returning to Africa. In the final scene, N— lies on the ground giving birth. She smokes a corncob pipe as she effortlessly bears her son, a condescending suggestion that childbirth comes naturally to such a character. Walker’s depiction of N— recalls white stereotypes of black people as animals and the manipulative practice of “slave breeding.” During the nineteenth century, slaveholders exploited female slaves’ reproductive sexuality for economic benefit.
Ultimately, Walker’s title—Freedom, a Fable—poses a thought-provoking paradox. A fable is a fictional story used to teach children a morality lesson; at the same time, a fable may denote an untruth or falsehood. If Walker is referring to “freedom” as a fable, she may be suggesting that freedom is not only unlikely, but unachievable for African American women in the United States. Conversly, perhaps the book is a fable through which we can try to better understand the meaning of freedom. By focusing on black women’s complicated relationship with freedom in the past, Walker urges reflection on the steps we, as a nation, have taken to assure freedom for all, but more importantly, the steps we still must take to make that freedom a reality.
—Emma Foley, Mollie Welch
From the exhibition: Hope and Anger — The Civil Rights Movement and Beyond (October 11, 2014 – February 15, 2015)
Kara Walker confronts issues of race, gender, violence, and class using the 18th-century bourgeois silhouette portraiture technique. Freedom, A Fable
engages with layers of displacement inherent in the black American diasporic experience. The book chronicles the heroine’s journey on a boat to Liberia—the African nation founded by Abolitionist Americans for the American Colonization Society. From 1816 until 1865, the American Colonization Society transported approximately 12,000 freed blacks from America to Liberia in a philanthropically-disguised attempt to halt black assimilation. While N-, the book’s protagonist, identifies “these unknown Africans as her people,” she does not fully realize the degree to which her experience as a slave in America has changed her. The slave ship represents a metaphoric instrument that “will swallow us and regurgitate our remains into some new form.” Thus Walker alludes to the defining impact of slavery and the way individuals are necessarily altered by dislocation and new contexts.
From the exhibition: We Will Control the Vertical (August 20 – December 4, 2016)