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"A Text for Living and For Dying": Theorizing Hortense Spillers' and Kara Walker's Call and Response

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Artist Kara Walker’s emergence within international and national art show circuits approximately twenty years ago precipitated an effective crisis in contemporary African-American art. Indeed, the implications of the crises in representational possibility, of reclamation and of historical memory, incited by Walker’s jarring cut-paper silhouettes, watercolors, and collages remain complex and far-reaching today. Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw’s 2004Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker, the single book-length study of the artist’s oeuvre, productively ushers precisely such complexities to the fore. For instance,Seeing the Unspeakableforegrounds readings of Walker’s art with and through discourses of haunting, gothic repression, and trauma. Juxtaposing the theories of Cathy Caruth and W. J. T. Mitchell, Dubois Shaw interrogates the psychical impact of Walker’s public pedagogy, one which pivots upon exposure and laying bare pain which exceeds language itself. “The discourse of the unspeakable,” Dubois Shaw maintains, “is a discourse made up of the horrific accounts of physical, mental, and sexual abuse that were left unspoken by former slaves as they related their narratives, the nasty and unfathomable bits of detritus that have been left out of familiar histories of American race relations”. For Dubois Shaw, Walker enacts a radical mode of inquiry into black slave/white female/white male pleasure, desire, and eroticism in the context of interracial sexual exploitation, bestiality, suicide, and pedophilia: her art lingers, almost revels in absurd and violent pastoral scenes, boldly staging moments of communal grieving and “rememory” as crucial means by which to attend to the afterlife of enslavement.  

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