Keys to the Coop, 1997
Kara Walker’s shadowy figures confront us with a disturbing legacy of racial division. Her surreal tableaux of plantation life have their genesis in historic images of the antebellum South. In this nostalgic setting, Walker re-examines the stereotypes that have long distorted race relations in America. Suggestively contoured in silhouette, a popular nineteenth-century pictorial device, her master and slave characters enact private dramas of seduction and domination, often revealing the ambiguous nature of power.
The animated vignette Keys to the Coop features Walker’s recurrent archetype of the exotic “pickaninny,” a mischievous child with disparagingly exaggerated features. She is pictured in hot pursuit of a chicken, clutching its severed head in one hand, twirling a master key in the other. Atypically attired in a frilly dress and high-top boots, the slave girl represents a violent upset of the established social order, the fear of the retribution by the oppressed. While Keys to the Coop allegorizes a colonial view of the primitive, its dark humor provokes discomfort in modern-day viewers, throwing into stark relief our personal prejudices and persisting cultural myths.
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