Django Unchained and the work of Kara Walker

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Living in Texas makes me primarily a Texan and secondarily a Southerner. We Texans are oftentimes snubbed by our more genteel neighbors to the East like Virginia or Alabama, because we were more cowboy than cotton but the truth remains that Texas was a proud member of the Confederacy.

While living with the Yankees in New York City, I became acutely aware of how proud I was to be a Texan (and Southerner) and, simultaneously, how complicated that pride had become. Being a Texan made me a topic of conversation and curiosity on the island of Manhattan. Telling a New Yorker that I could drive  one hour from my house and not see a single building on the horizon would evoke both jealousy and a joke:  Do people in Texas drive cars or does everyone have a horse?

And my accent, that didn’t help either. Although it didn’t emerge very often, (normal vehicles are anger and alcohol) when it did, I was either snubbed for being a hick or gawked at for being a Southern belle (which wasn’t a compliment all the time).

What I found was that for every good part of being Texan there was always an opposite negative reaction, and this contradiction is how Southerners are usually depicted in films. Django Unchained is just the latest installment.

Quentin Tarentino’s, Oscar-winning film, in all its hyperbolic violence and stereotypical cultural scenarios, shows the latent contradictions of being a Southerner. And Leonard DiCaprio is magnificent as the educated, violent, and hospitable plantation owner, Monsieur Candie. Through him we see the beauty and barbarism of plantation life (the china and torture implements) as well as and the devotion and hatred towards slavery (his lover and his most trusted adviser were both slaves).

Django Unchained shows us the disparity between dinner table etiquette at The Big House and the punishment techniques used at the shed out back. It also shows us that the relationships between plantation owners like Monsieur Candie and their slaves are complicated, ranging from inhumane to positively devoted.

This juxtaposition between best and worst of Southern culture and African-American relations has been the focus of Kara Walker’s work. I first saw her work at her show “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” at the Whitney Art Museum.

Walker is best known for her large-scale, black silhouette room installations depicting Southern, antebellum scenes where violence, vulgarity, sexuality and cruelty are intertwined with idyllic tableaux.

What Tarentino and Walker have in common is a disgust and fascination for a culture that has provided the standards for both American hospitality and inhumanity. They both know that the key to understanding antebellum South is in the balance between those juxtapositions.

And so when seeing the work of Walker or seeing movies like Django, I am reminded of my NYC days, and know that I cannot change the past or be embarrassed by it. In fact, I do not think that is the point of either of these works.  To me, Walker and Tarentino are not asking us to look backwards and point blame. Instead, they are illustrating how closely love and loathing are intertwined and how beauty can change to cruelty in just a moment.

Posted in art

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