Salvation by Kara Walker, one of the most significant works in the BMA’s contemporary collection, and And I Can’t Run by Hank Willis Thomas, a recent promised gift to the Museum, start a critical conversation in the Black Box Gallery on slavery’s legacy.
Walker’s Salvation, 2000, is a complex consideration of African American and female identity within the tragic history of American slavery. The central silhouetted female figure is characteristic of Walker’s work, which collides racial stereotypes and violent scenes with the genteel tradition of cut paper silhouettes. In this example, the figure gasps, perhaps drowning, in a swamp. The work’s title Salvation could suggest the woman has taken to the water to escape her enslavement. A grim possibility is that a death by drowning offers the only salvation from the horrors she has experienced. The foreboding and haunting scene is heightened through dim lighting and shadowy layers of imagery generated by an overhead projector.
Light is also critical to understanding the imagery of Hank Willis Thomas’s And I Can’t Run, 2013. Initially appearing as an almost illegible group of white-on-white forms on a rectangular field, a chilling photographic image of a black man shackled before aggressive white onlookers emerges once the work is photographed on a cell phone using a flash.
Where Walker returns to the centuries-old silhouette craft to examine the legacy of slavery in American, Thomas brings contemporary technology to the subject. Both artists, however, find contrasts of light and dark, white and black, and obscurity and revelation to be powerful metaphors for horrific violence and racial inequality in the United States.