MHC Seminar 1, Professor Casey Henry

Prompt for October 4



As I wrote in my email to you, here is the new prompt for the Kara Walker show, which has been substituted for the Ian Cheng PS1 show. (The Walker show, for those of you who didn’t receive my email, is located at Sikkema Jenkins & Co Gallery, at 530 WEST 22ND STREET NEW YORK NY 10011.)

Here is the prompt:

Instead of strictly obeying the Ian Cheng prompt that’s listed on your syllabus, I’d like you to think instead about the reappropriated use of symbols and stereotypes in Walker’s work (her use of nineteenth-century cowboys, slaves, and Confederate icons, for instance). Then, in a visual post (meaning you will copy and paste in an image, or include a link to an image), I want you to provide and write about an “icon” or “symbol” or “stereotypic depiction” of our modern day that you think is damaging, or in need of modification, or that can be employed in a new way. Describe why you feel this way, or, feel free to make an original (but simple) work of art that reappropriates or tampers with this icon. If you make a small visual piece, just include a short, few-sentence-long explanation, as well. This is meant to be open-ended, and creative, so feel free to write about, or comment artistically on, a subject, image, or concept that means something to you.


On a technical note, as it’s easier to embed images and media into a “post” rather than a “comment,” please feel free to respond via a “post” to the blog (as some students did before for the Doll’s House response). Just identify in the subject line that you’re responding to Walker.



  1. K Campbell

    Simply googling “party city racist costumes” gave me a wide variety of images to choose from,
    with “China man” mustaches, the “Hey Amigo Mexican Costume” featuring a plush donkey, and, the most uncomfortable options, costumes with names like “Tribal Temptation Native American Costume.” An example of one such costume (though we all know the type) is this:–indian-girl-costumes-indian-halloween-costumes.jpg
    A blonde, white woman puts a feather in her hair and wears a skimpy fringed leather costume for fun. Every October, white people head to Party City in droves to pick up their funny, sexy, costume, because Halloween is as good an excuse as any to mock an oppressed group of people. This notion of cultural appropriation, as it is part of our fashion the rest of the year as well, is often denied as a real problem. But a costume like the one above serves to fetishize Native American women, who are more than twice as likely to experience sexual assault than the national average, according to the New York Times. And, in more general terms, the idea of cultural appropriation is absurd – that white people, after destroying the civilizations of native people, encouraging the building of a wall between our nation and Mexico, and, for a long time, keeping black women out of mainstream media and the fashion industry, would like to look like these people they hate.

  2. aidansub

    Kara Walker’s exhibit emphasized its themes of race, class, sexuality, and gender through very grotesque means. Her images, to be frank, aren’t pleasant to look at, and they likely aren’t meant to be that way, usually manifesting as macabre collages depicting debauched acts of violence and sex between black and white caricatures. This isn’t meant to shy away the viewer, though; instead, it serves to capture the viewer’s attention via stark imagery that is harsh and capturing. Images of white men tied up and dismembered and naked black women holding snakes, and explicit messages confronting the white phobia of black people are all meant to capture the viewer in a position where they can’t look away. They are confronted with these stereotypes of race and gender and intersectionality so that they can no longer remain silent about it, but instead are forced to talk about it. The base desire of the artist is to generate dialogue on these complex issues through art, rather than let them stay obscured from the common viewer.

    • aidansub–blonde-dreads-dreadlocks-girl.jpg

      The above image emphasizes an aspect of appropriation that is both aesthetic and spiritual: the concept of locks on white people. Historically, dreadlocks have only been worn by four groups: Rastafarians, Hindu mystics, Akrotiki Greeks, and ancient Egyptians. Fundamentally, an argument can be made to say that the historical and spiritual context of dreadlocks has been so lost that anyone can wear them, but the difference is that people of color who wear dreadlocks are typically mocked and belittled for their dreads. They are rejected from jobs and college scholarships specifically based on a very integral part of their culture and identity, whereas white people who wear dreadlocks are upheld and almost revered amongst their communities.

  3. Ana LuoCai

    It’s pretty jarring to witness Walker’s work in person; her art is just so forthcoming and unapologetic about its message. By depicting stereotypes of black people, she is powerfully reclaiming that identity and repurposing it to give a strong message. I couldn’t help but think of the stereotypes and inaccurate depictions of my own people, the Chinese, embedded into American society all the way back to when the 19th century when hoards of Chinese immigrants arrived at the west coast for job opportunities.

    Even in modern times, there is definitely no doubt that these stereotypes remain untarnished. The issue of cultural appropriation is more relevant than ever when I see non-Chinese individuals wearing qipaos or foolishly sticking chopsticks in their hair, and false tropes reach new heights every time someone makes an “eating dog” joke.

    But I guess more in tune with the theme of this post: the rampant issue of white-washing, yellow face, and denying visibility to Chinese actors for Chinese roles–I could even broaden this group to Asians which comprise of billions of people!–is something that needs to be tackled directly and harshly especially in American society. I remember watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time and it was an understatement to say that I was rubbed the wrong way when I saw Mickey Rooney putting on a terrible Japanese accent and wearing makeup so that his facial features were “more Japanese.”

    These depictions are so damaging to the psyche yet they still persist, even if it’s not entirely obvious like with Rooney’s case. See: Netflix’s Death Note, an American adaptation of a beloved Japanese manga where they changed all the characters’ meaningful and relevant Japanese names to basic English names and majority of the actors are white. See: Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson. Casting people of color and casting roles properly has been shown to have big results at the box office, so why won’t Hollywood listen?

  4. tzipporachwat

    When walking through the Kara Walker gallery, the piece that caught my eye was “Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something)” (, not just because of its large size. I thought it was interesting how Walker used stereotypes of black people (like large lips and curly hair) to show who was who in the work. One thing that really stuck out to me was one of the white women in the foreground of the work is dressed in a dress that reminded me of something somebody in a fairy tale would wear, using the classic trope to show the mistreatment perpetrated by the “idyllic” white people.
    A symbol that has been in the news a bit lately is the yellow star. The yellow star was a patch of a yellow star that the Nazis made Jews wear in the beginning of the Holocaust to mark them as different. After Charlottesville, some Jewish celebrities, like Billy Joel, Jack Antonoff, and Nev Shulman wore yellow stars to take a stand against neo-Nazis. They were lauded for taking a stand. However, using traditionally derogatory symbols can be messy, like the case with the yellow star. A few years ago Urban Outfitter, a brand notorious for inappropriate using historical or racial symbols or stereotypes, got into trouble for selling a yellow shirt with a blue star on the pocket on the chest ( . This was not even an exact replica of the yellow star, but it was still troubling. Other Urban Outfitter controversies include, a vintage “blood” stained Kent State sweatshirt, clothing labelled “Navajo”, and a shirt featuring “Getto-opoly”, stereotyping Black communities. While there are some positive using os historical symbols, there is a very fine line between praiseworthy and bad uses.

  5. Henry Menestrier

    The ideas and effects of European colonialism and manifest destiny are present in many of Kara Walker’s works. The cowboys, conquerors, and slavers in her collages are often focal points of her works. The serve to bring up the inconsistencies we encounter when dealing with white settlement in Africa, Indonesia, and the Americas. In school, we are taught to glorify the 18th century as the century where Europeans established themselves as the dominant global powers. This is done through heroic accounts of their actions and paintings and images that deify their actions. For instance, the American practice of manifest destiny is taught with the help of John Gast’s “American Progress”
    ( The painting glorifies American expansionism, while completely ignoring the destruction of Native American populations, land, and culture. Walker gives us a much more accurate representation of the American conquest of the west coast, with depictions of savagery, violence, and inhumanity. Reasons like these are why the legitimacy of Columbus Day as a holiday are being called into question, as he carried out genocide just as much as Hernán Cortés did in his campaign against the Aztecs. Walker’s helps remind the observer that there are two sides to everything and it is important to take them both into consideration before blindly celebrating the one people want you to see.

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