Kara Elizabeth Walker

Christ's Entry into Journalism, 2017, Ink and pencil on paper, cut-and-pasted on painted paper, 3569 x 4978 mm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Acquired through the generosity of Agnes Gund, the Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art, Carol and Morton Rapp, Marnie Pillsbury, the Contemporary Drawing and Print Associates, and Committee on Drawings and Prints Fund, 198.2018, © Kara Walker; Photo: © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Neither Slave nor Free

Commentary by Rod Pattenden

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Read by Chloë Reddaway

This large scale drawing in ink and pencil, sets out a visual field populated with references to the African-American experience of enslavement and social marginalization. The vast scale of the work invites viewers to find their own path across its surface. Contrasting social attitudes jostle with each other. Representations of cultural icons overlap with images of violence and cruel parody. With a lynching tree hovering over them, historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr are shown alongside trapeze artists, people in costume, Klansmen, riot police, soldiers, and the enslaved. Together they constitute a vibrant assemblage of characters from across time.

The scale and composition of the work leaves it without a focal point, as each individual element calls for the attention of the viewer. This denies us a point of rest or a single position from which to survey a clear order of things. The various elements vie for recognition and understanding, caught up in a cycle of violence and sad comedy that is repeated over and over again.

This historical parade, rendered as a painful panorama, is negotiated by the eye of the viewer looking for threads of meaning—for some form of pattern, or historical purpose; for social improvements or advances; for hope.

Viewed in the light of the protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, this restless image takes on new meaning: by its unfinished nature it continues to deliver a sharp contemporary challenge. The ink is still wet and the work is still being added to in an unending repetition of violence and betrayal. Around the world during 2020, aged statues in city squares were toppled. So many generous benefactors who garnered their wealth through the profits of slavery. Our history has been telling our future.

Christ’s entry into ‘Journalism’ in the title, reminds us that current history is mediated to us in ways that allow detachment, as we become viewers rather than participants or mediators of change. Where might we search for the presence of Christ? Perhaps hope is incarnated in a suffering victim, or alternatively crushed by a figure who claims the rights of white privilege. This work resonates with questions for Christian theology, asking who is orchestrating such a parade in which one’s role is determined by the colour of one’s skin? How might it be directed differently?

See full exhibition for Galatians 3:23–4:7

Galatians 3:23–4:7

Revised Standard Version

Galatians 3

23 Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. 24So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; 26for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

4 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate; 2but he is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. 3So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. 4But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.