In Consuming Stories, Rebecca Peabody uses the work of contemporary American artist Kara Walker to investigate a range of popular storytelling traditions with roots in the nineteenth century and ramifications in the present. Focusing on a few key pieces that range from a wall-size installation to a reworked photocopy in an artist’s book and from a theater curtain to a monumental sculpture, Peabody explores a significant yet neglected aspect of Walker’s production: her commitment to examining narrative depictions of race, gender, power, and desire. Consuming Stories considers Walker’s sustained visual engagement with literary genres such as the romance novel, the neo-slave narrative, and the fairy tale and with internationally known stories including Roots, Beloved, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Walker’s interruption of these familiar works , along with her generative use of the familiar in unexpected and destabilizing ways, reveals the extent to which genre-based narrative conventions depend on specific representations of race, especially when aligned with power and desire. Breaking these implicit rules makes them visible—and, in turn, highlights viewers’ reliance on them for narrative legibility. As this study reveals, Walker’s engagement with narrative continues beyond her early silhouette work as she moves into media such as film, video, and sculpture. Peabody also shows how Walker uses her tools and strategies to unsettle cultural histories abroad when she works outside the United States. These stories, Peabody reminds us, not only change the way people remember history but also shape the entertainment industry. Ultimately, Consuming Stories shifts the critical conversation away from the visual legacy of historical racism toward the present-day role of the entertainment industry—and its consumers—in processes of racialization.
Rebecca Peabody is Head of Research Projects and Programs at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. She is coeditor of Lawrence Alloway, Critic and Curator and Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art, 1945–1980 and editor of Anglo-American Exchange in Postwar Sculpture,1945–1975. In addition, her essays have appeared in numerous exhibition catalogues, edited volumes, and journals.
“In this beautifully crafted book, Rebecca Peabody offers an in-depth analysis of Kara Walker’s brilliant and provocative art. Just as Walker, the artist, forces viewers to reexamine their assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, and violence, Peabody, the scholar, challenges readers to delve deeply into Walker’s source material and, in doing so, discover the essential, the painful, and the profound, not only in her work but in society as a whole.”—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
“In an era when the goal of criticism is more than ever to find what is ‘problematic’ in a work of art—rather than what is moving, complicated, invented, or absurd—Rebecca Peabody bravely explores Kara Walker’s storytelling impulse. Stories are the things that don't make sense, that remain open, that open dialogues, that spark debates, that remain above the fray or beside the disaster they alone can articulate so well. The story is usually outside the domain of the scholar, but that is not the case here, much to Peabody’s credit.”—Alexander Nemerov, author of Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine
“Rebecca Peabody has found a perspective that is fresh and innovative and one that advances new interpretive possibilities.”—Derek Conrad Murray, Associate Professor, History of Art and Visual Culture, University of California, Santa Cruz
“Consuming Stories brings several previously unexplored ideas to the fore. Kara Walker emerges as a far more compelling practitioner than earlier treatments suggest. This is a text of superior scholarship.”—Courtney J. Martin, Assistant Professor, History of Art and Architecture, Brown University