Disturbing Learning

This is one of the most powerful and troubling works of art I have encountered. Take the time to watch the whole video (just over nine minutes).

The video is a good starting point: it allows Kara Walker to offer her point of view. This is important, because there is an article in the Huffington Post which, while it acknowledges that the sculpture “is successful in that it’s jarring”, laments Walker’s imprisonment in the dominant narrative and lack of imagination. Or, read in another way, the article illustrates the success of Walker’s art: it moves Jessica Ann Mitchell to imagine much more than is represented. Mitchell’s article seems to miss much of what Walker has thought, said and done, glancing off the dazzling white surface of the main sculpture.

There is also an article about the exhibition itself, and the unease created by viewers taking photographs of each other beside the sculpture. To the writer’s mind – and to mine – the sculpture has worked again.

Britain needs a work like this. We are vaguely aware that the wealth of many of our cities came from slave labour, but it all happened a long time ago, a long way away. The Caribbean is, for most of Britain’s population, a remote area; slavery a Bad Thing alongside others in the ‘1066 And All That’ of our history. Which is why I also believe that American literature is important in our young people’s liberal education: while Britain profited from a distance from our colonies, America has to lie on the soiled mattress of its exploitation of fellow human beings. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ couldn’t have been written here but marks a point in many children’s education where they begin to ‘get’ what we are capable of doing to each other, good and bad.

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