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  • Emily Dowdle

Humanities on the Edge Preview: Kirsten Pai Buick

Detail of Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery or “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life)” See the Peculiar Institution as never before! All cut from black paper by the able hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and leader in her Cause, 1997, Cut paper on wall, 144 x 1,020 inches, 365.76 x 2,590.8 cm. Installation view: Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2008. Photo: Joshua White

In a recent interview with BURNAWAY, Kirsten Pai Buick explains what she means by the problem of art history’s black subject, stating that she means problem in “two ways.” First that “problem” designates the artist as someone who is not a white male -- that to be a non-white non-male artist is to be expected to “reproduce your identity very simply in your art.” This is to say that the white male is a blank-canvas (so to speak) that is allowed to execute the “mind, hand and genius of abstraction” because they are not expected to reproduce a gendered or racialized experience back onto their work. Buick puts it succinctly that “if you’re a woman, you’re expected to re-present your ovaries, if you have race you’re expected to re-present your race in your artwork.” To be an artist who isn’t a white male is to be, in someway, expected to represent some face of your identity in your artwork which is then taken to be a representation for the entirety of that community. Further, Buick uses “problem” to indicate that artwork is a “solution to a problem and a situation” -- pulling from Michael Baxandall’s Patterns of Intention, whom Buick references when she states “if you can isolate those three things -- the solution, the problem, the situation -- you can understand the historical context of objects.” When asked about artist Kara Walker, Buick furthers her point of identifying the uses of problem in designating the problem of art history’s black subject:

SC: Do you think [Kara Walker] is an important artist or she is being held up by that system?

CR: Or is she exploiting those?

KPB: Those aren’t mutually exclusive; she is being propped up because she’s exploiting racialist representation.

Buick further explicates her arguments in regards to Walker in “L’Effet de Réel: Showing (and Telling) Kara Walker.” Here, Buick argues that

in all the back-and-forth about Kara Walker, something is missing in the discussion about meaning, artistic integrity, audience reception, and the long-term effects of her imagery (1).

That just as important as understanding Walker’s work in and of itself (meaning, intention, and so on) is that mediation between the work and the public done by curators. Using Professor Robert Hobbs decision to choose Walker to represent the United States at the São Paulo Biennial in 2002. Choosing Walker, Hobbs asserted that her artwork’s “real subject is ideology” and that Kara Walker “wants to set racist stereotypes loose in the world so that we can see the type of cultural insanity or paranoia behind them” (qtd. in Buick 2). Buick asks whether or not this is an actuality as Hobbs/Walker pose racist ideology and slavery -- which is still active and working in the world -- as “problems of the past that linger only as echoes today” (3). Buick asks: “What, really, does Kara Walker’s work have to do with the historical and contemporary fact of enslavement?” (3). What about Walker’s work is appealing to Hobbs’ own understanding of race -- why must her work, and the work of African-Americans reaffirm the ideas of race, as if it is the Afro-Americans who depend on a racial explanation. It is Hobbs and Walker, Buick argues, who “would have us believe that African Americans are the inventors of race: that it is African Americans who need it; and that there is only one race so that ‘race’ means ‘black’” (5). Walker’s placement of historical stereotyping and the use of black experience as a focal point in her art reaffirms racialization and that in a “nation that has yet to officially acknowledge that slavery happened here and continues to happen throughout the world is that Walker’s work becomes the memory of that ideology that now masquerades as history (9).

Buick then asks again: “What, really, does Kara Walker’s work have to do with the historical and contemporary fact of enslavement?” Before answering herself: “Nothing. She just yells ‘NIGGER!’ in a crowded theater, and rather than stampeding out, we are forced to sit and listen and burn” (9).

Works Cited:

Buick, Kirsten Pai. “L’Effet de Réel: Showing (and Telling) Kara Walker," in Kara Walker - No/Kara Walker - Yes/ Kara Walker -- ? (New York: Midmarch Art Press, 2009): 15-22

Buick, Kirsten Pai. Interview with Stephanie Cash and Carl Rojas. BURNAWAY, 18 March 2016,

#humanitiesontheedge #KirstenPaiBuick #reviews

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