Spanning over three metres in width, Four Idioms on Negro Art #4: Primitivism (2015) is a vivid and monumental work by Kara Walker. Walker, whose new site-specific work for Tate’s Turbine Hall will be unveiled in October 2019, is best known for her mural-sized installations of black paper cut-outs which viscerally dramatize and deconstruct racial and sexual stereotypes; the genteel ‘mock-antique’ appearance of these silhouettes is jarringly at odds with their incendiary content. In the present work, Walker adds electrifying colour to the mix, using flashe, tempera and watercolour to create a striking fresco-like composition. Against a nocturnal background washed in cobalt blue, four black figures are silhouetted. They are framed by sinuous trees, the blue sky reflecting in three equidistant puddles before them. The three central figures – one female and two seemingly male – are engaged in what looks like a violent and ecstatic ménage à trois. The lower body, lying prone and swallowing the leg of the body above him, has a Neanderthal skull for a head. To the right, a towering figure wearing the boots and visor of a riot policeman steps on the skull, brandishing a large club that echoes his oversized phallus. The work belongs to a series that satirises the perceived ‘idioms’ of African American art; the first, Four Idioms on Negro Art #1: Folk, is held in the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo.
Walker sees these received ‘idioms’ – her targets include folk art, primitivism and graffiti – as patronising and restrictive, presenting comfortable, romanticised and two-dimensional narratives. As Robert Fitzgerald Reid-Pharr has written, ‘Walker reserves some of her most pointed criticism for what she describes as the bad black art she saw as a child in Atlanta. She believed the work to be bad not so much because it tended to focus on degradation or the resistance to degradation but instead because, in producing that work, artists ran the risk of creating images of Black American identity and culture that were as thin as the paper on which they were drawn’ (R. F. Reid-Pharr, ‘Black Girl Lost’, Kara Walker: An Abbreviated Emancipation (from The Emancipation Approximation), exh. cat. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor 2012, p. 28). In contrast, Walker’s own work directly engages with the complexities, contradictions, seductions and appalling violence of the past and present to create a far more nuanced and difficult image than these ‘idioms’ would allow. Teasing apart the interwoven strands of history and fantasy in received cultural constructions, works like Four Idioms on Negro Art #4: Primitivism traverse the realms of horror, desire and beauty with razor-sharp wit.