Eve Dunbar discusses the work of Kara Walker at the Artful Dodger on Tuesday, February 15th.

Today’s post comes form Sarah Harshman, Vassar College class of 2011, and Art Center student docent.

“I really don’t feel comfortable in museums,” admitted Eve Dunbar, Assistant Professor of English, at the beginning of her Artful Dodger lecture yesterday. Perhaps a little shocking to Art Center patrons gathered in a museum for a discussion of, well, art, was Dunbar’s comment moments later, “I really don’t enjoy art … I prefer stories.”

Dunbar led visitors through an examination of three stills from the 16mm film Testimony by the contemporary African American artist, Kara Walker. Walker uses her signature black cut-paper silhouettes as puppets to create a charged and often disturbing narrative set in the Antebellum South. As a lover of stories, Dunbar’s focus was on the concepts and interpretive potential of the images rather than their process of creation. As a group, we attempted to come to terms with the issues of identity, narrative, and audience that are so significant, yet complicated, in the work.

To facilitate the discussion of narrative and authorship, Dunbar read a selection from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a slave narrative from 1861. The book makes clear that the sexual terror felt by female slaves was a far greater hardship than the manual labor or physical abuse encountered. It is this same terror that Walker makes apparent in her work. Yet, Dunbar asks, what does it mean that Walker relies on her audience to fill in the narrative based on our historical, scripted understanding of slavery? The stills played out no concrete storyline and yet we all seemed to be prepared to create dramas around them. Still, few audience members viewed the pieces in the same way. What one viewer saw as a black woman behind bars, another understood to be a figure walking between trees. A white master forcing himself on a female slave was also interpreted as two figures kissing. Walker’s flat, black and white images leave much room for the interpretation of individual viewers, creating the possibilities of interpretation that fascinate Dunbar. Harriet Jacobs writes that “human nature is the same in all,” but human experience certainly is not. Walker is keenly aware of this and uses it to force her audience to think not just about what we interpret in an image, but why we do so. We each bring our own set of stories with us and they alternately enlighten and cloud our interpretations.

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