An Artist's Vision, A Community's Response

Provocative BAM exhibition inspires volatile emotions


Kara Walker dares you to not look away.

Walker is one of the most controversial artists of the 21st century--she uses the historical medium of silhouettes to tell purely American stories of misogyny, slavery and debasement--and the Boise Art Museum exhibition of her most provocative shadows has people talking.

The exhibition, Emancipating the Past, hasn't exactly settled into BAM--Walker's masterworks offer little comfort--but the must-see show, which runs through Sunday, Aug. 17, has filled a good portion of the museum's south wing with controversy. Some pieces are deliberately racist, others are sexually charged and more than a few blend ugly stereotypes with whimsy. One particularly uneasy rotogravure (or engraved print), "The Keys to the Coop," portrays an African American child who has ripped the head off a chicken in anticipation of eating the head. With the chicken's head in one hand, and a flailing body nearby, the child has a key neatly wrapped around her other hand, indicating that the child has had free access to the animals. According to notes accompanying the exhibition, the silhouette "probes the violence and psychosis masked by naturalizing or ignoring stereotypes."

Heady stuff for a mid-summer's evening conversation; but in a July 29 standing-room-only forum, community leaders, both public and private, connected the dots of the Walker exhibition to the human condition in 2014--with particular emphasis on Idaho.

"My reaction? It's graphic; it makes me a bit uncomfortable, and it was even a little confusing," said Boise arts advocate Yvonne McCoy. "I felt pain and heartbreak."

McCoy paused for a moment.

"I wept," she said.

Wells Fargo financial adviser Louis Sheppard, when asked his reaction to the show, said, "A lot of anger came out of me at first."

"I'm reminded of being seen by others as a second-class citizen," he said. "By the way, you should feel free to ask me what I prefer--African American or Black. I prefer Black American. But someday, it will just be American."

Boise artist Sue Latta said she also knows the experience of being called an "other." Latta is a mixed-media sculptor and adjunct art professor at Boise State University. Many may also know her as one of the key figures in the most famous Idaho court case in recent memory: Latta vs. Otter. She is one member of the three same-sex couples who have successfully challenged Idaho's constitutional ban on gay marriage (BW, Citydesk, "Historic Ruling," May 14, 2014). The plaintiffs are weeks away from defending their unions before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In May, a federal judge ruled in favor of Latta, her partner and the two other couples, which prompted the state of Idaho to appeal to the 9th Circuit.

"And I must say that this exhibit makes me think about a courtroom I sat in not too long ago," Latta said, referring to this year's trial at the U.S. Courthouse in Boise. "Attorneys for the state of Idaho were saying, 'This is the way we've always done it. Heterosexual couples are a preferred class of people in Idaho.' In their very being, they thought that they were on the right side of this."

State Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb sat a few feet away and nodded. She was a young girl when a hate group burned a wooden cross in front of her Boise home, and she grew up to be the first African American elected to the Idaho Legislature (BW, Citizen, "Cherie Buckner-Webb," Jan. 30, 2013).

"This exhibit hit me emotionally. I must admit to some surprise," said Buckner-Webb. "Slavery isn't my history. It's our collective history."

An even newer legislator, House Rep. Ilana Rubel (BW, Citizen, "Ilana Rubel," Jan. 22, 2014), said Emancipating the Past has "a tremendous amount of relevance here."

"Yes, pictures say a thousand words. Think of the picture of a lone Chinese student standing before a tank in Tiananmen Square. Think of the picture of a child running from horrors of war in Vietnam. Images push us back on our feet, and this exhibit does that. It's interesting in how history exposes the present," she said.

When asked if she would recommend bringing children to such a provocative exhibition, Rubel, a mother of four, didn't hesitate.

"I would not shy away from bringing children," she said. "There's a time and place for sex and violence and this is it."

On its website and in its collateral materials, the Boise Art Museum says, "The exhibition is intended for an adult audience."

"We really want people to make the decision for themselves," said BAM Executive Director Melanie Fales. "The reaction has been extremely positive. But quite frankly, we never knew what the reaction would be."

Many of the forum's invitees weighed in on whether to expose children to Walker's work.

"If you're not comfortable, by any means, don't bring your children," said Buckner-Webb. "Having said that, if you're ready to have that conversation, by all means, bring them."

Fales added that BAM has crafted a specific family guide to help parents and youth navigate the exhibition.

"We're finding that people want to take part in a conversation such as this," she said.