In her works that are currently on view at the Sikkema & Jenkins gallery in Chelsea, the African-American artist Kara Walker examines the ongoing narrative of racism, violence, and oppression. The exhibition, titled “Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies & the Book of Hours,” consists of a short film and watercolor drawings.
What: Kara Walker, Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies & the Book of Hours
When: October 29-Dec 18, 2021, Tue.-Sat. from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Where: Sikkema & Jenkins, 530 West 22nd Street, New York, NY
The plot of Walker’s film focuses on the ever-present injustice blacks and various religious and cultural minorities have faced throughout U.S. history; its scenes are violent, replete with lynchings, shootings, and bombings. One of its beginning scenes features a centaur-like creature — a black woman’s head on the body of a horse that is gracefully prancing in the night, possibly an allegoric representation of a free woman subsequently seen fighting back her white master. Another allegoric representation is the symbolic rattlesnake that has come to epitomize the ruthlessness and arrogance of white supremacism. Actual photographs from the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing and a 1993 siege in Waco, Texas, flicker onscreen before fading out. The background music in the film is composed by an artist and musician from Minneapolis known as Lady Midnight. The music dramatically shifts back and forth between marching band style, ragtime, soul, and rock music to capture the intensity, tragedy, and triumphant moments of the story.
The “Book of Hours” section of Walker’s show includes several drawings and watercolor paintings that convey the struggles and challenges African Americans have been facing in the United States. Many of the pieces include phrases written in pencil in small print that echo the thoughts and circumstances of the subjects.
Most of the works in the “Book of Hours” section are untitled or simply referred to as “Book of Hours.” The subjects range from portraits of black people to dramatic, tumultuous, and poignant scenes conveying how blacks respond to their life circumstances. Most of them also include fragments of text. For instance, one untitled piece features two African American women struggling to swim and stay afloat amidst tumultuous ocean waves. The text that runs along the contours of the waves reads, “I am the Tempest and you are the leaky boat.”
Another untitled piece shows a group of three black men happily gathering for an Independence Day celebration. But the accompanying text reads, “So what, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?” as a reminder of their history.
Other pieces depict black men and women trying to prevail despite all the forces against them. In one such work, titled “Tall Woman,” a woman attempts to reach a star in the sky, an allegory of her struggle to achieve her hopes and dreams.
The “Book of Hours” title bears multiple meanings. In one way, it’s a reference to a series of Christian devotional books produced in the Middle Ages. In addition, the title alludes to the many, many months that have passed during the coronavirus pandemic and to the amount of time Walker put into her graphite, watercolor, and sumi-e ink drawings that capture the emotion and gravity of our current global situation.