Entanglements: an exploration of the digital literary work FISHNETSTOCKINGS

On Kara Walker's Silhouettes


While the silhouettes of FISHNETSTOCKINGS have a creative genesis unique to its re-conceptualization of mermaids, their ability to highlight how and when we invest silhouettes with meaning is mirrored in Walker’s cut-paper installations. When taken together, these other-worldly figures draw our attention to how categories of identity like gender (i.e., FISHNETSTOCKINGS) and race (i.e., Walker) are formed out of ambiguous or ambivalent “data points.” Walker’s installations explore the social relations of slavery by placing their silhouettes into situations that unapologetically reference black stereotypes. Given the salacious nature of these installations, Walker has received heavy criticism from other black artists who argue her work amounts to little more than a minstrel show. Her reproduction of negative stereotypes, they claim, impedes racial progress by validating the anti-black sentiments already held by non-black viewers. But as Walker explains, the silhouettes act as a “blank space that you [can] project your desires into. It can be positive or negative. It’s just a hole in a piece of paper, and it’s the inside of that hole…The audience has to deal with their own prejudices or fears or desires when they look at these images” (Sheets, Artnews.com). Here, Walker’s emphasis on the audience’s interpretative labor resonates with Homi K. Bhabha’s argument that “the stereotype is at once a substitute and a shadow. By acceding to the wildest fantasies…of the colonizer, the stereotyped other reveals something of the ‘fantasy’…of that position of mastery” (qtd. in Wickham 341). As it happens with the mermaid silhouettes of FISHNETSTOCKINGS, Walker’s silhouettes are transformed into stereotypes via the fetishistic projections of viewers but in such a way that the viewer must confront their participation in this process.

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