by Jordan Giles
The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven is a life-sized installation by artist Kara Walker which tells the history of slavery far differently than in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this piece, Walker uses life-sized silhouettes to portray four distinct scenes, as aptly described by Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw. Viewed from left to right, the piece begins with a scene of enslaved women and an infant “involved in a moment of mutual nursing” (Shaw 159). This scene is succeeded by a group of enslaved children grasping various objects, including a basket, tambourine, and spike, while encircling “[t]heir young mistress, who raises an ax high above her own head” (Shaw 159). The following third scene is “dominated” by “a corpulent and crippled master” who sodomizes a young enslaved girl and whose “girth” can only be supported with the assistance of “a saber that is thrust into the body of an infant beneath him” (Shaw 159). The fourth and final scene depicts a desperate, “balding,” enslaved man “who, knees bent and hands clasped in prayer, is connected to a fetus lying on the ground by a cord dangling from his anus,” although the type of cord is unclear, “while at the far right a woman who is partially obscured by bushes gestures in his direction (Shaw 159). Walker uses stereotypical features of slave owners and the enslaved in her silhouettes, playing on the audience’s assumptions to convey the brutality of slavery and its continued impact.
The End of Uncle Tom was originally displayed in 1997 to a primary audience of gallery-visiting art enthusiasts who frequented the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial where the piece was installed. Since then, however, Google was invented and Walker’s audience has become much broader given the wide scope and reach of the internet. Her audiences now include art enthusiasts worldwide and individuals interested in learning about slavery, the portrayal of slavery, and the effects of slavery on modernity. The End of Uncle Tom is as relevant to audiences today as it was when first displayed because it invokes the past in a way that makes the audience reflect on the history of slavery and its ties to modern society.
Historical and Cultural Context
Historical racism is the hallmark of Walker’s work, ranging from the racist history of slavery during the antebellum era to modern day racism. In The End of Uncle Tom, Walker retells this racist history unlike the 1852 novel that inspired her art work, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Whereas Stowe’s novel paints an almost romanticized picture of slavery, portraying those enslaved as docile, simple, and religious, Walker’s piece shows the horrific impact of slavery on the enslaved, including sexual abuse, violence, torture, and humiliation.
The issue of racism has continued far beyond the antebellum era and has taken many forms. A few years prior to The End of Uncle Tom being displayed, Rodney King, an African American man, was brutally beaten by the police. The pain inflicted on innocent black individuals has a long history in America. According to Elizabeth Alexander in her article Can You Be BLACK and Look at This?: Reading the Rodney King Video(s), “black people have paradoxically had to witness their own murder and defilement and then pass along the epic tale of violation” (Alexander). From the brutal beatings and rape of many of those enslaved in the antebellum era, to the murder of Emmett Till in the Civil Rights era, to the beating of Rodney King in the 90’s, and to the more recent murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and many others, racism against African Americans has been the common thread. This history of racism, rape, and violence against African Americans is illuminated in The End of Uncle Tom.
Walker’s cultural upbringing as an African American woman and her artistic influences are both reflected in her work. As a teenager, Walker moved with her family from an integrated suburb in California to Atlanta, Georgia where she personally experienced time and time again the racial bigotry of the south (Cotter). According to Walker, despite the Jim Crow laws being abolished a few years prior to her birth, “oppression” continued to persist “everywhere,” only needing to “sit at the wrong lunch table at high school, and face a barrage of hostile looks and questions” (Hughes). Moreover, Walker and her family were exposed to Ku Klux Klan activity which had been revived in the area in which her family settled, and Walker had to live through the fear and paranoia of the Atlanta Child Murders, a three-year period in which 23 black children were murdered (Hughes).
These experiences with racism and Walker’s intrigue with the techniques of various artists whom she learned about in her study of art led her to the theme of racism and a “nervy visual language to apply to it” (Cotter). Among the artists who influenced her were, “Andy Warhol, with his omnivorous eye and moral distance. And the painter Robert Colescott, who inserted cartoon blacks – grinning Dixie sharecroppers – into van Gogh’s Dutch peasant cottages. And there was conceptualist Adrian Piper, who played with her identity as a light-skinned black woman to flush racism out of hiding” (Cotter). Both her cultural influences and her artistic influences dominate her art work and have launched her to a level of acclaim not experienced by most artists.
Themes and Style
Racism and the enduring legacy of slavery in modern society are consistent themes in Walker’s work, including The End of Uncle Tom. To convey messages about these themes, Walker uses the methods of silhouette and shadow, portraying life-sized silhouettes engaged in acts that are violent, sexual, and horrific. To bring even more attention to her messages, Walker uses silhouetted stereotypical imagery such as “mammies,” hyper-sexualized black women, kerchief-wearing black women, thick-lipped black people, and petticoat-wearing white women. Although the piece merely shows silhouettes, it is still incredibly graphic. Throughout various scenes within the piece, Walker manages to create meaning in each scene as an individual component as well as when they are examined together as a cohesive installation. Further, in using silhouette, she simplifies the literal images, yet she complicates the audience’s understanding of the piece and leaves room for interpretation.
Walker effectively uses silhouette and stereotypical imagery to focus the audience on the message of racism’s impact rather than the details of the piece. Her use of silhouette and cyclorama, that being installing the piece on a curved wall, also reflect the era she is analyzing which roots the piece in that era while still remaining connected to modernity. In addition, Walker uses the technique of “ripping the veil,” a technique we discussed when analyzing the graphic novel Nat Turner by Kyle Baker for this course, English 1102: Afterlives of Slavery. Like Baker, Walker displays the violence and horrors of antebellum slavery. Portraying graphic scenes throughout her work, she not only is unafraid of exposing the human form, such as the exposed breasts of women in the piece, but also refuses to shy away from the brutalities of slavery on African Americans. For example, one of the scenes featured in this piece depicts a child being raped by a grown man as he simultaneously stabs a baby with his sword.
These methods and techniques are abundant in The End of Uncle Tom. In the first scene, in which bare-breasted enslaved women and a child are nursing each other, “the nourishing and the sexual nature of the breast becomes confused, allud[ing] to the horrific impact that slavery wrought on the bodies of African American women” (Shaw 161). In addition to the sexual abuse of enslaved women, it was not uncommon for enslaved mothers to be forced to nurse the baby of their master and leave their own child malnourished. In the second scene, which depicts mischievous enslaved children and their “ax-wielding mistress,” these “so-called innocents (cute yet vile little children) perform ghastly deeds” (Shaw 173). As a result of witnessing this horrific scene, the “spectators, regardless of their racial self-identification, are forced to confront their guilt over the traumatic legacy, both real and imaginary, of slavery” (Shaw 173). In the third scene, which depicts a young enslaved girl being sodomized by her master who simultaneously is stabbing an infant beneath him with his sword, Walker conveys that the slave owner has the power and authority to sodomize the young girl because she is “his physical and racial subordinate,” however, he is only able to do so “with her presence beneath him supporting his unseemly girth” and “the aid of penile prostheses” (Shaw 173). Slave owners were able to gain and maintain power by committing violations and acts of violence upon those enslaved, such as the master sodomizing the girl and stabbing the infant in Walker’s piece. However, slave owners would have been powerless without those they enslaved. In the same scene, the enslaved girl, “hangs on to the cornstalk for support and waits until the act is finished, as if in acknowledgement of the futility of a potential struggle with such a crushing load” (Shaw 173). The girl does not express anger or sorrow, instead, “[S]he is complicit in the act of her domination; she is taking in the body of the oppressor; she is becoming one with him” (Shaw 173). The institution of slavery was merciless towards those enslaved and was a “crushing load” often thought of as too powerful to overcome. Although often faced with unimaginable hardships, the fairytale of those enslaved escaping was often just that – a fairytale. Those enslaved who attempted to escape were often captured and faced with violence even worse than already entailed. In many cases, those captured were murdered for attempting to escape. Also, those who did manage to evade capture and make it to the North though no longer enslaved still continued to face racism. Finally, in the fourth scene, which depicts an enslaved man with thick lips kneeling in prayer and giving birth to a child, Walker “references the fate of children born from unions between free European American women and enslaved black men as well as those born to black parents” (Shaw 179). Babies are nourished via an umbilical cord. However, children born into slavery, rather than being properly nourished, were fed the horrors of slavery, as illustrated by the cord connected to the enslaved man’s anus.
The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven “signifies on the predictable myths of antebellum plantation life using a complex synthesis of racialized imagery, nostalgic visual devices, historical narrative” (Shaw 182). Walker’s work is particularly powerful in that it shows that “all characters regardless of race or social position are guilty of vile acts and intentions” (Shaw 182). As a result of being bombarded by these acts of cruelty and violence, the audience of the piece is forced to be a witness to these atrocities and as a result must “face his or her own potentially traumatic relationship to history and acknowledge whatever repressed guilt and sadomasochistic feelings one might have about one’s personal relationship to slavery” (Shaw 182). No one is innocent in the horror that is the continued impact of slavery. Despite hollow claims of modern society being a “post-racial world,” it is incredibly far from it – particularly in America. The same institutionalized racism against African Americans which began centuries ago continues to pervade today in many forms, not only in the actions taken against African Americans, but also impacting the consciousness of black individuals. This racism occurs at many different levels in a multitude of ways. One example was President Nixon’s launch of the supposed “War on Drugs,” which, in reality, targeted and imprisoned African Americans. Similarly, the disproportionally high imprisonment rates of African Americans to their white counterparts for identical crimes is another form of racism. Yet another form is the idea that naturally coily hair is unprofessional in the workplace. These along with the many other forms of racism have a tremendous impact on the consciousness of African Americans. Many black individuals fear police brutality – a fear of those who are supposed to protect citizens. This fear stems from the many black lives ended, the murder of innocent victims for no reason other than the color of their skin and false assumptions.
Although Walker’s work has been well received overall and she has received accolades such as a McArthur Foundation “genius” grant, Walker’s art has not been without controversy (Cotter). The End of Uncle Tom in particular has been praised by some and denounced by others. Because Walker uses tropes and stereotypes, such as black women wearing kerchiefs and “mammies” to convey her messages, the primary criticism of her work is that it reinforces race-based stereotypes. Several African-American artists whose careers predated Walker’s went so far as to “publicly condemn her use of racial stereotypes as insulting and opportunistic, a way to ingratiate herself into a racist white art industry” (Cotter). Additionally, Bettye Saar, a prominent African American artist, led a public outcry against Walker’s work, calling for a boycott of her art and criticizing her work for its “‘negative images’ and for attempting to ‘reclaim and reverse racist imagery through irony’” (Cotter, Ferguson 187).
Despite her critics, Walker also has many admirers. Reflecting on the messages conveyed by Walker’s art, Yasmil Raymond, an art curator who has curated Walker’s work, writes “[viewers of Walker’s work] are metaphorically and emotionally transported to the plantation of their own racial and gender prejudices, superiority and inferiority complexes, and anxieties and fetishes” (Ferguson 190). Similarly, Roderick Ferguson, a professor of African American Studies and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, applauds Walker’s art, stating that “her silhouettes are ways of getting at those blank spaces that reside in that text of visibility known as African American history” (Ferguson 191). African American history is not often told, however, when it is there are often many gaps in the story. The unwarranted violence that many black individuals have faced and continue to face is often overlooked or ignored. Walker’s work forces the audience to confront these gaps, no matter how uncomfortable they may be to address. Ferguson also adds that Walker’s work “takes challenges that once belonged primarily to the province of literature and delivers them to visual jurisdictions” and that “her art deserves a special place within the order of knowledge” (Ferguson 191). Walker not only manages to transcend mediums to visually illustrate racism, she does so while simultaneously illuminating and critiquing the form in which the story was originally told, via literature. Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw agrees there is value and impact to Walker’s art stating that via Walker’s reimagination of slavery and “distortion of cultural history”, the piece “resurrects and reenacts a phantasm of inherited guilt over slavery that many Americans have long tried to reconcile in their rush to declare a race-free society” (Shaw 180). Many Americans are quick to say that they are not racist, whether they are accused of being so or not; however, the fact that the myth of the world being a “race-free society” is earnestly believed by many underscores that there are still underlying issues. These issues appear in various forms. For example, many individuals inherit biases and hatred from their friends and family. Additionally, in the media and as a result in the eyes of many Americans, whiteness and white features are often seen as the standard of beauty. Furthermore, when black features and styles such as big lips and cornrows are accepted, it is only after white individuals have claimed them as their own creation. Oftentimes there is also a complacency with racist ideology. One form of complacency is by not confronting racist individuals. Another form is by claiming that one supports racial equality while simultaneously enjoying the benefits of racial injustice and making no effort to eliminate these benefits.
Walker’s use of stereotypes is not “opportunistic,” as she is trying to illuminate issues of race and slavery. Although it is not Walker’s goal, audiences who merely look at her work at face value, particularly audiences with little knowledge of American slavery, may misinterpret her work and overlook the many subtle messages that lie within her art. Rather, audiences should view her work bearing in mind the function that silhouettes serve in Walker’s work. As Walker herself explained, “The silhouette is a blank space that you [can] project your desires into. It can be positive or negative. It’s just a hole in a piece of paper, and it’s the inside of that hole” (Ferguson 186). Before dismissing The End of Uncle Tom, viewers must ensure that they are truly knowledgeable about the messages Walker illuminates in her work. Whether it be essays such as this, novel chapters on the piece, novels about nineteenth century techniques in art, YouTube videos of Walker explaining her perspective, or other resources, the audience must take the time to research the themes Walker portrays.
Walker’s work should not be taken lightly or merely at face value. Her work can ignite conversations about racism in America, particularly since the history of American slavery is often glossed over in history books. Walker’s piece, however, can educate students about the vicious institution that was American slavery and can lead to their reflection about the continued impacts of slavery today. Moreover, researchers can learn about and explore both the impacts of slavery on modern society and the evolution of the portrayal of slavery over time by examining art ranging from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Kara Walker’s piece in modern times. Whomever the audience may be, the exploration of Walker’s art could lead to a self-examination and reflection that could change perceptions and understandings and ultimately could change the way we see and treat each other.
Alexander, Elizabeth. “Can You Be BLACK and Look at This?: Reading the Rodney King Video(s).” Public Culture, 1994, pp. 77–94., files.t-square.gatech.edu/access/content/group/gtc-cb4c-78a5-5ef8-a877-3508af7d29df/can%20you%20be%20black%20and%20look%20at%20this.pdf.
Cotter, Holland. “Black and White, but Never Simple.” The New York Times, 12 Oct. 2007, p. E29, www.nytimes.com/2007/10/12/arts/design/12walk.html#annotations:FP013KmZEeeyq1clAWLoAw.
Ferguson, Roderick A. “A Special Place within the Order of Knowledge: The Art of Kara Walker and the Conventions of African American History.” American Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 1, Mar. 2009, pp. 185–192. Arts Exhibits Review-Comparative [ProQuest], doi:10.1353/aq.0.0062.
Hughes, Kathryn. “Southern Discomfort: Artist Kara Walker Continues to Shock and Awe.” The Telegraph, 9 Oct. 2013, www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10314794/Southern-discomfort-artist-Kara-Walker-continues-to-shock-and-awe.html.
Shaw, Gwendolyn DuBois. “The ‘Rememory’ of Slavery: Kara Walker’s The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven.” Trauma and Visuality in Modernity, edited by Lisa Saltzman and Eric Rosenberg, Dartmouth College Press, 2006, pp. 158–188.
Bennett, Brit. “Ripping the Veil.” New Republic, 2 Aug. 2016, newrepublic.com/article/135708/colson-whiteheads-fantasticvoyage#annotations:XgtXUJdzEeettsPXSJ9K6A.
Lowe, E. J. “Seeing Dark Things: The Philosophy of Shadows.” Review of Seeing Dark Things: The Philosophy of Shadows, by Roy Sorensen. Philosophy, vol. 84, no. 4, Oct. 2009, pp. 615–619, search-proquest-com.prx.library.gatech.edu/arts/docview/231324337/fulltextPDF/474768FA0D5B4699PQ/1?accountid=11107.
Neary, Janet. “Representational Static: Visual Slave Narratives of Contemporary Art.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 39, no. 2, 2014, pp. 157–187. ProQuest Research Library [ProQuest], search-proquest-com.prx.library.gatech.edu/docview/1541966760/fulltext/194E9E98EA6D4584PQ/1?accountid=11107.
Platfoot, Anna Jeanne. “The Silhouette and Its Use.” Design; Washington, D.C., vol. 36, no. 5, 1 Nov. 1934, pp. 12–13. Periodicals Archive Online [ProQuest], search-proquest-com.prx.library.gatech.edu/arts/docview/1296386971/fulltext/6560BA3976574632PQ/1?accountid=11107.
Keywords: The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, Kara Walker, Cyclorama, Silhouette, Shadow, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, US Slavery, Racism, Racism in America