Interrogating Kara Walker’s no world

Through a combination of poetry, prose, and critical writing, Sally Kashala ’23 narrates a viewing experience of Kara Walker’s no world.
Content warning: This piece contains mentions of self-harm and slavery.

Empire. Empire. State. The State. A state. Government. Self-governed. No land. No world. No place. No state. Unhoused. Unpeopled. People less. Used to. Past. History. Past. Memory. History. Violence. Stain. Roots. Water. Uncharted. Unknown? Unremembered? Forgotten.

Kara Walker, no world, from “An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters”, 2010. Etching with aquatint, sugar-lift, spit-bite, and drypoint on paper, 27 in. x 39 in. (68.58 cm x 99.06 cm). Museum purchase from the A.A. D’Amico Art Collection Fund, 2011.011.

The Colby College Museum of Art acquired the singular artwork titled no world from Kara Walker’s notable six-piece series, An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters, in 2010. For much of its time here at the Museum, the print was tucked away in the archives until a Black History Month program held in the Museum’s Teaching Gallery in 2015. It was again revealed in 2019 following the announcement of the Lunder initiative to display more Black art alongside twelve artworks acquired on loan from the Kelley Collection of San Antonio, Texas. Some of these artworks on loan included Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Market Place, Edward Mitchell Bannister’s Jamestown, and Lois Mailou Jones’s In Dry Dock. no world was known once again to the Museum space.

Money. Transaction. Capital. Power. Lower level. Mast. Deck. Cargo. Cargo. Humans. Chattel. Archive. Record. Erase. Unrecorded. Unknown. Known. Auctioned. Going. Going. Going. Gone.

no world

Kara Walker, no world, from “An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters”, 2010. Etching with aquatint, sugar-lift, spit-bite, and drypoint on paper, 27 in. x 39 in. (68.58 cm x 99.06 cm). Museum purchase from the A.A. D’Amico Art Collection Fund, 2011.011.

The etching is not only in black and white but showcases a multitude of shades of a dynamic yet sullied gray. These intermediate tones are evidence of Walker’s technically superb handiwork. The darkest ink on the page exists as the ship skeleton, the dark sky behind it, the hands that support the ship, and the Black body that struggles facedown in the gray water at the bottom of the page. Two figures, believed to be of a white slave owner and a Black enslaved person, appear on the left in the etching. The two stand on the only shore apparent in the artwork. The water strikes the small landing, which supports only the two figures and thin corn stalks, one of which is being hoisted by the enslaved person to the slave owner. (Maize is a crop indigenous to what is now known as the North American continent.)

Mundus Novus. New world. The New World. no world.

The drowning silhouette seen supporting the ship from underwater is hidden from the view of the enslaved person who stands on the shore. Evidence of the body is apparent only through the advent of their careful hands, which maintain the ship. Contorted but limp and in a state of distressing passivity, the figure has nearly managed to successfully deliver the cargo ship to its destination, presumably the dock that supports the only other two silhouettes in the artwork. Six or seven light gray bubbles from the underwater figure just begin to surface. Exhaling and finally releasing after a long journey. The boat with its pristine sails and majestic build rests precariously on the fingertips of the underwater figure, almost appearing to be just as oblivious to its underwater human support as the two landed caricatures. (Why is a boat being carried across water? Does this not negate the intended function of a sea vessel?) The white flag perched at the top of the ship and the crisp sails jut into the sky. The color of the sky is something I could not figure out. Does the sky look black or does it look white to you? Or is it gray? Perhaps a black sky adorned with various white-and-gray-toned clouds? If not that, where does the black smoke come from? Why is the scene so bright if it is nighttime? Where is the sun?

Where is the sun? Where is the sun? Where is the sun?

What time is it? What day is it? Where am I?

Isn’t it ironic? That this etching was a part of a six-piece series but now sits physically isolated from its set. That five siblings sit in various private and public collections scattered throughout the world. Perhaps never to be reunited. All bought up with the intention to be shown. To an admiring, questioning, confused, inspired(?) public. Preserved in archives across the globe. Brought out and proffered only on occasion.

Cold. Lower. Refrigerator. Cellar. Basement. No, this is different. Temperature controlled. Cataloged. Marked. Numbered. Recorded. Branded. Bookmarked. Shackled.

Six brothers and sisters
Born of a common parent
Perfect upon birth.
Sold. Separated. Shipped off to different corners of the Western world to be displayed.
Restored. Poked and prodded.

The Flying African

Who is this figure? To whom do the arms, cut and mutilated and refracted by the water, belong?

Kara Walker, no world, from “An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters”, 2010. Etching with aquatint, sugar-lift, spit-bite, and drypoint on paper, 27 in. x 39 in. (68.58 cm x 99.06 cm). Museum purchase from the A.A. D’Amico Art Collection Fund, 2011.011.

In the 1930s the WPA or Works Progress Administration created the Federal Writers’ Project to record narratives of former enslaved peoples. Many of the stories and much of the information gathered from this initiative over a span of sixteen states confirmed and informed much of the cultural discourse concerning Black folks and flying. Like, back to Africa.

In the “Slave Narratives,” when prompted about Black folks who could fly (back to Africa), many interviewees: 1. Claimed to have either heard of folks who could fly, or 2. Attested to seeing individuals physically uproot themselves from the plantation grounds and take off in flight. Allegedly some women could even fly with still-suckling children on their backs and take off never to be seen again.

Famously in 1803, a group of ethnically Igbo Nigerians, captured and brought to the East Coast shores of this continent, overtook their captors upon transport to the island of St. Simons near Georgia. The group left the foreign beach and collectively walked into the unfamiliar water, presumably drowning themselves. When a handful of the prevailing rebels’ bodies were never recovered, the myth of Black flight was cemented in the consciences of the island population and all who heard the story. This specific instance has been brought into print and film history by the likes of Beyoncé in her visual album Lemonade, Toni Morrison in her novel Song of Solomon and Julie Dash in her film Daughters of the Dust, among many other prominent examples.

In this particular case, suicide was deemed more appealing than the social death and eternal bondage that awaited past the shoreline. The horrors of chattel slavery were so abhorrent that many preferred to forgo their physical bodies for the chance of a homegoing. How has the dark body at the bottom of no world reclaimed personhood by exhaling at the very moment of arrival to the destination?

Toni Cade Bambara, famed Black author and social activist, once said, “When you dream, you dialogue with aspects of yourself that normally are not with you in the daytime. And you discover that you know a great deal more than you thought you did.” Perhaps the sky is indeed black. Perhaps we are dreaming alongside the underwater figure. Imagining agency and reprieve. And perhaps the boat can indeed float on its own! But we need, we require, the underwater figure still and despite this! The undisrupted white sails and white flag depend upon the smooth channels that have been carved by the submerged person’s feet, which serve as a guiding rudder, and careful fingers, which ensure safe passage.

Perhaps this is the dream of the slave owner who stands with his eyes fixed upon the ship. Perhaps he is dreaming of what deception to tell the ship passengers once they land. The journey inward. Beyond the banks. How will he lull his hostages into him? Another journey among the many miles already travelled. What tactics will he use to get his hostages across the barren threshold and into the lush land he will have them work for the next millennium? The unknown waves seem familiar when compared to the even more unknown land.

Perhaps this is the dream of the enslaved landed figure? The dream of the ship passengers. Siblings, neighbors, friends, farmers, teachers, gods, wishing to be carried back home by some unseen savior.

Kara Walker’s no world explores themes of property and personhood. Of agency and subjugation.

In an attempt to resist the sentencing for a crime they did not commit that awaits them in the new world, the underwater form reclaims both their physical and dream bodies by subverting oppressive Western patriarchy and the commodification of their labor and instead choosing self-preservation by giving in to the natural mechanistic process that is simply breathing.

Further Questions

Capital. Capital.

When all six of the prints in Walker’s series An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters sold out within a year, even she expressed surprise, stating at a lecture in March of 2011 that was co-sponsored by the Menil Collection and the Department of Art History at Rice University, “I have a series of prints that were just published and apparently are all gone—but I’m very happy with them . . .” What does it mean that the Black figure depicted in the print, who has tried so hard for self-survival, is now memorialized through this physical artwork and its countless digital reiterations on the Internet? What does it mean that this artwork, among its siblings, was purchased most likely at an auction or through a private buyer and now resides in the vestibule of the Museum? Is this in some way an unfair contradiction of the liberation won by the underwater figure?

It is no secret that Kara Walker’s artworks garner immediate attention and sometimes acclaim or vitriol upon their production. Known for their “shock factor” and contested “controversial nature,” Kara Walker has been known to the “art world” since the 1990s. Between 1997 and 1999, Walker’s artworks were criticized—rightfully so—by the likes of Howardena Pindell and Betye Saar and two hundred other artists, activists, and politicians, for depicting, for example, a nude Black woman having sex with the skeletal corpse of a Confederate soldier, among other more grotesque images that I will not recount here. Her style is easily recognizable and, as confirmed above, any iteration of her work is highly sought-after particularly by white audiences. Walker has sometimes described her oeuvre as autobiographical. What does it mean for Walker, the artist, to sell and make widely available art that is simultaneously her own liberation and her own confinement? What does it mean that artworks concerning the past and present oppression of Black people are bought and sold and harvested and archived and hidden? And what role does the museum or the enthusiast or the critic or the auctioneer or the curator or the artist or the educator or the agent or the audience or the subject matter play in preserving art for the masses? And isn’t it ironic that I, a student and museum enthusiast, am debating the symbolism of this print myself from within the institution? Yeah. Yes, it all is.

Kara Walker, no world, from “An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters”, 2010. Etching with aquatint, sugar-lift, spit-bite, and drypoint on paper, 27 in. x 39 in. (68.58 cm x 99.06 cm). Museum purchase from the A.A. D’Amico Art Collection Fund, 2011.011.

no world is an artwork that raises, at least for me, a multitude of questions but not very many answers. (I’m thinking this is the point.) The print is sizable and detailed but incomplete. I’m not saying that the artwork could even be fully understood if it were placed alongside its five siblings but rather that the artwork will always be incomplete. The story, the narratives, the spirituals, the films will always be unfinished. These works of art exist not only as individual ephemera but as constantly evolving memories within the Black consciousness. The legitimacy or practicality of flying Africans does not so much matter when the circumstances for this measure to be taken is considered. In an attempt to escape commodification, exploitation, and transformation into currency, Black folks were tempted to a life of eternal transience. Transience into uncharted waters. The conscious decision to breathe is an act of defiance. And one of collective salvation.

To breathe. To breathe. To rest. To choose. To rest. To breathe is an act of defiance.
Bubbles on the surface of an ever-shifting medium.
The water will erase all traces.
It will cleanse and carry the soul back to its source.
Refracted. Morphed. Transformed. In all of your glory.