After the Deluge, by Kara Walker

The work that Walker made shortly after hurricane Katrina had caused the flooding of New Orleans takes centre stage, firstly, in focusing on how addressing something in terms of attention may be difficult because it is such a painful thing to do. Secondly, it focuses on why addressing something in terms of expression may be difficult because the expression may be produced or received in a distorted way.

After the Deluge was designed to be an installation (much more than an exhibition) at first, that could be visited from March 21 to August 6, 2006, in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The installation consisted not only in major works by Kara Walker herself but also in many different works of art made by other American or European artists, which Walker had chosen out of the museum’s collection. In the visual essay of the same title that was made out of the installation and published in 2007 there is only one picture that was made of the New Orleans flooding, namely the one with which the book opens: a black woman, photographed from above, moves through waters that are covered with a brilliantly coloured film of petrol, trying to keep some bags above the water, presumably carrying some of her possessions. Because this is the only explicit reference to the flooding, it becomes a statement in itself that all the works that reflect on the flooding are historical pieces. The conflict between the two is made explicit when, for instance, a historical engraving is reworked. Taking one specific image entitled ‘Cotton Hoards in Southern Swamp’ from the nineteenth century Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War, Walker puts that into another perspective by adding, up front, the large cut out of a black man. As a consequence, the past does not simply reflect on the present, and neither is the present simply re-inscribed into the past. Rather the two are, indeed, placed in a different perspective.

In this context, the question becomes why, according to Walker, the vast amount of photographs and television images were not able put things in perspective. Or, in relation to my argument, the question is what they were the witness of, or whether they were witnessing in an ethically responsible way. With respect to this, Walker’s concern is not so much how to deal with the disaster of flooding itself, but how to deal with the news coverage that considered the disaster as one that had African Americans as the main subject, either as deserved and negligible victims or as perpetrators that used the anarchy to plunder and steal. As Walker puts it in her introduction: “a Black subject in the present tense is a container for specific pathologies from the past and is continually growing and feeding off those maladies” (Walker 2007: 9). In the light of this quote, the question with regard to the coverage of what happened through and after the disaster was what was being projected versus what was being witnessed. Walker’s point is that instead of really witnessing what happened, the news coverage was ruled by past “maladies” as a result of which they did not witness properly either in terms of the address of attention or address of expression. I tend to take the term news coverage seriously, here. Something is, indeed, being covered.

Frans-Willem Korsten