Robert Burgoyne
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The afterlife of stereotype
Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, DJ Spooky and The Birth of a Nation
in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
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The re-emergence of racial stereotype as an aesthetic resource and political provocation in the work of several Black visual artists is a surprising development, a rethinking that challenges our notions of aesthetic value. In the work of the artists I consider here – Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley and Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky, that Subliminal Kid) – racial stereotype is repurposed as a political and aesthetic strategy, a critical tool and a device for reawakening what Walker calls the ‘unspeakable past’. Appropriating the aesthetic systems of the past, turning them around from the inside in acts of affirmative sabotage, Walker, Wiley and Miller convert the symbolic signals of both high art and popular culture to a very different message. Central to this engagement, I argue, is the repurposing of stereotype, the site of greatest imaginative condensation. The racial stereotypes of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries are confronted in these works, not as something to be censored or bracketed from critical scrutiny, but rather as a force field that activates a particularly charged form of historical thinking, an experience of history as seen ‘from below’ – from the perspective of the slave girl, the Black guy on the street, and the hip hop artist. Engaging history from a surprising angle of attack, the work of these three artists brings to the surface the undercurrents of a visual culture that both excludes and stereotypes Black lives.

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D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation

Art, culture and ethics in black and white


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