Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 9, 2022
Rebecca Peabody Consuming Stories: Kara Walker and the Imagining of American Race Oakland: University of California Press, 2016. 216 pp.; 24 color ills.; 28 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (9780520288928)

Rebecca Peabody’s Consuming Stories: Kara Walker and the Imagining of American Race is the first monograph solely about Kara Walker’s work since Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw’s Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (2004). To be sure, a dizzying amount of literature exists about Kara Walker and her creative output in book chapters, journal articles, and exhibition catalogs. With this in mind, Peabody’s sustained and thematic reading of Walker’s work is welcome, vital, and necessary because she introduces new ways of understanding Walker’s work by focusing on her literary influences.

Peabody’s title is apt because Walker’s stories do consume the audience as they search for meaning. The consumption works both ways since the audience consumes the stories and in turn becomes consumed by narratives that primarily deal with race in the United States, culling from the legacies of enslavement. Although Walker’s works deal with the past they are commentaries on contemporary racial predicaments in the United States and globally.

Peabody’s intervention into the wide breadth of scholarship on Walker is her attention to narrative through Walker’s literary inspirations, a vein that Peabody rightly claims is underexplored in Walker’s work. Through her focus on narratives Peabody considers how race unfolds, not just in Walker’s work, but more broadly in American culture. Although Walker has explicitly stated the influence of literary sources on her work, Peabody claims most scholarship only touches on discussions of those sources. With Consuming Stories Peabody gives readers a sustained reading of Walker’s narrative influences. The literary sources come in the form of “historical documents, personal experience, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary and visual culture” (1). Walker “uses these sources to tell stories about how race and gender are imagined and deployed” (1). The author is careful here in identifying these narratives about race and decoupling them from Walker’s motives and intentions. Throughout Consuming Stories, Peabody maintains intellectual ease with the visual enigmas created by Walker’s allusions to a vast body of literary and visual content and the uneasy reading of race through Walker’s body of work.  

In chapter 1, “The End of Uncle Tom,” Peabody makes an explicit connection between Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Walker’s tableaux. While others have used the novel as a starting point in their readings of Walker’s work, Peabody makes the connections between the novel and the later artworks unambiguous with detailed close readings of scenes and vignettes in The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (1995). Peabody also makes the case for Walker’s silhouettes being a “continuing of the story” (51). That is, Walker elaborates on slavery’s violence and inhumanity in ways that Stowe dodged in her literary depictions. For example, a vignette in The End of Uncle Tom that includes a stripped and stooping Tom giving birth alludes to physical and sexual abuse while challenging stable sexual identities (29–30). In chapter 2, “The Pop of Racial Violence,” Peabody considers the relationship Walker’s silhouettes have with the neoslave narrative. This literary genre is a form of writing by contemporary authors who use archives and imagination to narrate a story from the perspective of the enslaved. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) is one of the most notable examples; others include Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose (1986) and Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women (2009). Peabody argues that Walker’s artworks are the genre’s expansion into the visual field. Her work, specifically an untitled 2002 silhouette in which a female figure flings helpless infants into the distance, is in deep conversation with Morrison, who retells the story of Margaret Garner, a fugitive enslaved woman who killed her child to keep her from becoming enslaved in Beloved. Walker created a collage of female genitalia surrounded by an oval of text for the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago in 1997 that is also in conversation with Barbara Chase-Riboud, Elizabeth Alexander, and Renee Greene, whose works address Sarah Baartman, a South African woman who was exhibited in Europe as an exotic curiosity in the nineteenth century.   

In “American Romance in Black and White,” chapter 3, Peabody explains that romance novels have an integral influence on Walker’s work, but it has not been examined in any sustained ways in the existing literature on Walker. That sexism and patriarchy exist in the genre only further emphasize Walker’s narration of a uniquely American story of chattel slavery in the United States. Subsequently, romance can help us understand the most enigmatic Walker silhouette scenes in terms of power and desire when the audience considers the types of dynamics at play in the romance genre. The dynamics serve as a metaphor for what is happening in Walker’s plantation scenes. The fourth chapter, “The International Appeal of Race,” examines the allure of Walker’s racial tableaux abroad and how her literary influences can be applied globally. Peabody notes that Germany has the largest collection of Walker’s works outside the United States. Since Europe does not necessarily have the same historical memory as the United States, Peabody interrogates the impact of Walker’s stories on a European audience. Accordingly, she notes that “stereotypes and icons do not necessarily lose their meanings when removed from familiar contexts” (128). In chapter 5, “Storytelling in Film and Video,” Peabody makes a most compelling argument that undergirds the entire text: history is artifice. The narratives Walker creates in video—with their emphasis on and attention to the very methods and mechanisms of creation—indicate her complicity with history’s artfulness. Walker began working with video ten years after she started the silhouettes and Peabody underscores the direct performative nature of the video works as a natural progression in Walker’s creative process.

Peabody concludes Consuming Stories with a reading of Walker’s first sculpture, A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014). The monumental, sugar-coated mammy sphinx, which was commissioned by Creative Time, was an experiment of sorts for Walker, who filmed the audience’s reaction to a “giant 10-foot vagina” (157). As she expected, the reactions and interactions were lewd and explicit in some cases. Digital Sugar Baby crowdsourced the audience’s images of the sculpture and compiled them on Creative Time’s website. Peabody interrogates what existed after the eventual demolition of the sculpture and the sugar plant it was exhibited in. Those remnants are the narrative of A Subtlety. It is in those remnants that the audience’s reception lies and they tell the greater story of race and sex in the United States.

Consuming Stories accomplishes its goal of bringing attention to Walker’s literary influences with sustained readings of the literature alongside Walker’s artworks. Peabody does so with attention to Black feminist thinkers such as Janell Hobson and Saidiya Hartman. My only concern with the text was in chapter 2, which Peabody devotes largely to the neoslave narrative of Sarah Baartman, who was, in fact, not enslaved. The circumstances of her life and demise are indeed tragic and the result of a global system of white supremacy, but the relationship to the neoslave narrative does not so easily fit in her case. What Peabody describes in the Baartman section (which also includes Alexander, Chase-Riboud, and Greene, along with Walker) is more of a critical fabulation in Hartman’s terms, in which she addresses the creative work historians must engage in in the archive when omissions and obfuscations exist in the archival records of Black women. For Peabody, whose purpose is to identify the narratives that inspired Walker, it is crucial to note that sometimes those narratives are purposefully and violently obliterated and methods such as Hartman’s critical fabulation help fill in the gaps.

Overall, Consuming Stories: Kara Walker and the Imagining of American Race is a richly illustrated, thoughtful engagement with Walker’s body of work. The text helps us reconsider Walker’s diverse influences, assessing the visual with pertinent texts. It is an essential and welcome addition to the growing body of literature on Walker’s artworks. It will prove useful to scholars of American art as well as literature. 

Elizabeth C. Hamilton
Assistant Professor, Visual and Performing Arts, Fort Valley State University