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No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep believing, the dreams that you wish for will come true.”—Walt Disney
Fairy tales have inspired children’s imaginations for centuries and remain one of modern entertainment’s most lucrative forms of universe-building and storytelling. As people move into adulthood and begin to re-contextualize the bedtime stories of their childhood, the seeds meant to generate dreams eventually become the roots of nightmares. More importantly, during adulthood, these stories transform and take on new meanings, turning these innocent tales into the shadows of collective pasts—pasts in which ghosts materialize the ephemeralized recollections and unspoken truths not meant to be understood by the naive mind.
The reckoning of these gothic fairytales has crept into the visual cosmology of contemporary critical theory in the arts and literature. As a result, women and other minority groups have had to investigate the participatory stage and how it has aggregated the sum of their reality and produced a critical moment of global recollection— a remembering that meditates on all of the experiences and the insidious constraints placed on their existences. This movement of wokeness has fueled a promise of truth and reconciliation that has reignited an aggressive reconstruction of American social epistemologies that will bring us “back to the basics.” Creating divergent existences under our experiential singularity, one part of our society reconstructs the ABCs of the American dream. At the same time, the other half confronts the reality of being wide awake with the traumas and mechanisms of our collective past and present. The materialization of these two components of the singularity ultimately required two American dimensions to gravitate towards oppositional poles that establish a zero-sum base.
In this dysphoric cultural moment, now more than ever, Kara Walker’s work reverberates timeless embodied truths through its careful interplay of surrealism, fairy tales, and dark realities. Through the lens of performance and entertainment culture, Walker requires audiences to examine the mediums and narratives we refuse to recognize as foundational to our lived experiences. Vanishing Act, a 1997 etching in the RISD Museum’s collection, memorializes the stage and performances that engender contemporary critical race and gender theory in the Global North with particular power. By harnessing illustrative materiality, nostalgic form quality, and fearless visual metaphor, Vanishing Act illuminates the cyclical nature of oppression and slavery.
In Vanishing Act, Walker sets the scene by offering the viewer a window into a delicately transferred ambient stage, set on china ivory paper. Establishing an ethereal landscape through the washing of shades of black on a translucent surface, Walker allows the piece to transcend the contemporary footprint of space and time. This transcendence fractures reality and opens the viewer to imaginations that connote a recent past heavily draped on a dimly lit stage. However, the unfocused backdrop effortlessly bleeds into a crowd of equally cloudy figures—an audience that needs no definition and who produces an “understood” ubiquitous gaze.
Kara Walker, Vanishing Act, 1997. Etching and aquatint with chine collé. Courtesy: RISD Museum
The brilliance of this piece is in the interplay of fuzzy form and razor sharp lines that moves the viewer’s eyes from the cloudy space to the figure on the stage. Titrating sweeping shades of black into poignantly etched illustrations, Walker hones the viewer’s gaze to happenings in the ephemeral scene where a Black woman kneels on the floor. With her hair neatly tied into a scarf, the dark-skinned petite woman dons an un-embellished, off-the-shoulder dress that reveals her natural form. With a ghastly expression on her face, the woman vacantly looks across the stage with her mouth firmly pressed around the neck of an even more petite female figure. Dressed in a two-toned, corseted circle dress with bows on her sleeves, the child-like figure hovers above the ground with only her white skin and tuft of blonde hair exposing her identity.
The interplay of the Black woman donning a neatly tied black headscarf devouring a young white girl is a stark and unexpected outcome of the illustrative nature and form quality of Vanishing Act. More specifically, setting the animalistic positioning of the attractive Black woman, who is likely a house servant, in a tenebrous setting is an intentionally dramatic shift from a fairytale to a nightmare. Reared by the slave master to blindly and happily enjoy raising white children and then devouring the sweet doll-like child is a subversive twist from her assigned social role. The savage contortion of the on-stage performance is even more ironic because the beautiful Black servant becomes the brute caricature, an iconic artifact of white propaganda used to justify slavery and Black/brown oppression.
Ultimately, the unavoidable and carefully manufactured duality of the Black woman’s existence and fate makes Vanishing Act an iconic piece in Walker’s body of work. Through this etched illustration, Walker reveals the precise pressures of racism that require Black women to stand in the darkness of the stage of white society—a setting constructed for performances of socialization. To the audience’s dismay, Walker unveils the white theater as a carefully assembled and calibrated space created to trigger an unhealthy emotional and physical response for Black participants.
“And of the idea of becoming white. White is equated with pure and ‘true’: it takes a lot of energy to turn brown things into white things. A lot of pressure.”—Kara Walker
Whether it be the unshakable positivity of a reliable Black mammy or the toxically insatiable Jezebel, in the white theater, the Black female has no space to fashion any other versions of herself. Furthermore, it is in this flat juxtaposition of the Black female identity structure within the frameworks of the Global North that Kara Walker’s work posits the certainty of the Black woman’s transfiguration into a monster. A monster is a woman who becomes the materialization of an ideological martyr who recycles her existence into perpetual forms of social oppression. In Vanishing Act, the monster’s emergence empowers the servant to feed off the child she is forced to care for and consume the child she was never given a chance to be.
The transformation of a beautiful Black house servant into a cannibalistic Black mammy on a Shakespearean stage seems like fodder for the next season of Lovecraft Country. However, the reality is that fairy tales have been spaces for monstrous feminine metamorphosis since the establishment of Ra. In more recent epistemologies of the Global North, white male authors have enjoyed the liberty of fashioning beautiful subservient and/or shackled feminine protagonists that endure unfathomable circumstances to be on the societal stage. In turn, these beauties and princesses respond to the trauma by becoming freakish mutations of their younger selves. As she transforms from a naive, beautiful maiden to a mature wisdom holder, the powers that be in Western society have continually cornered women to consume youth and become monsters.
“I’m fascinated with the stories that we tell. Real histories become fantasies and fairy tales, morality tales and fables. There’s something interesting and funny and perverse about the way fairy tale sometimes passes for history, for truth.”—Kara Walker
Under these circumstances, women have to craft their own identities—a sense of self that leaps into 3D and has left behind a world rendered to produce a subservient social class that fits neatly on the planar surfaces of the master’s double-sided coin. Women have to abandon methods and fabrications that have relegated embodied femininity to currencies of human capital meant to mint the extraction of dignity and biodynamic materiality to build a beautifully rigid predictive field—a set of spaces configured to identify well-performing parameters across an ivory terrain of pre-scripted instances meant to delight pre-selected masses. Vanishing Act lays the foundations that perhaps the only way out—out of the theater of the European patriarchy—is to get off—
—get off the stage …
A product developer turned conceptual digital and material design engineer, Kiki Nyagah loves operating at the intersection of intelligent systems, interaction design, sustainability, and fine art.