In the spring of 1997 I visited Kara Walker’s exhibition ‘‘Upon My M
Masters’’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (sfmoma). One
the works I saw that day was a physically imposing installation titled
End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (figure
It was a huge piece that spread across the gallery walls, like a shad
drama being played out by actors hidden behind a scrim of white f
ric. Each of the work’s many characters was presented in formally e
gant profiles that froze the motions of their wildly gesticulating bod
in erotic, satiric, and violent poses that were both attractive and rep
sive. Many of my fellow gallery visitors stood before the piece, jaws sl
and eyes wide, staring in puzzled disbelief at what they were seeing,
at least at what they thought they were seeing. I, too, was stunned by
graphic nature of the piece, its violence and its hard-core sexual conte
the way that it seemed to attack the clichés and stereotypes about pl
tation life that have become a part of the popular understanding of
past. It was a moment of communal visuality in which the act of view
within the space of the gallery became a spectacular spectacle, a cycli
scopic activity in which museum patrons watched other museum patr
watching them back. The phenomenological effect of the installation
very ‘‘thingness,’’ following Martin Heidegger’s 1936 essay ‘‘The Ori
of the Work of Art,’’ was like a physical blow to the observer; it rende
many viewers temporarily disoriented and speechless.
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