Christ's Entry into Journalism by Kara Elizabeth Walker

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

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Neither Slave nor Free

Commentary by
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?

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