June 10, 2020- July 5, 2020
Carlos Walker is a self-taught African American artist whose series of 48 oil pastel drawings offer racial role reversal as a provocative antidote to the prejudice, systemic violence and unsustainable economic inequality that has once again brought African American protesters onto the mean streets of major cities across the country.
The idea for these drawings came to Walker one day in the prison yard of a federal prison where he was serving a 20-year sentence for selling drugs. What he observed that day was a black prison guard disciplining a white inmate, a reversal of the traditional power relationship between whites and blacks he had never seen before.
What if, he thought to himself, all white Americans experienced, even for a day, the pervasive discrimination, injustices, inequality of income and opportunity, resultant poverty, and police violence and oppression, which African Ameri-cans have experienced for hundreds of years? Everyday, to this day.
Would whites in America understand what it was like to be black in America? Would they be less prejudiced? Less fearful? More willing to devote the re-sources necessary to improve the lives of our underclass? Would race rever-sal change the thinking of Americans who believe some white supremacists are “very fine people” and that shoot-to-kill is the way to respond to African Americans legitimately enraged by police violence?
We’ll never know because the kind of race reversal Walker envisions will never happen. But if you’re a white American, seeing his draw- ings will make you feel the way he felt seeing a black prison guard discipline a white inmate—that the present and the future can be different than the past and that artists and their work can influence the dynamic of social and political change.
Unfortunately, with the murder of George Floyd this week a likely prelude to a long summer of protests, looting and violence by desperate Americans—who are just as likely to be met by government repression ordered by our mentally ill president—the timing and issues raised by CCPArt’s last exhibition couldn’t offer a better example of what we mean by contemporary political art.
It is art that helps us understand the most difficult, unsettled and controversial issues of our time, in real time.
Poster Boy for Prison Reform
by Charles Krause
Carlos Walker arrived at THE CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY POLITICAL ART one day about four months ago, unannounced. I happened to be there, talking with a dear friend about the prospects for CCPArt’s survival, when Carlos bounded up the stairs with two framed pictures under his arm. He had done his research and asked for me by name. Would I look at his drawings?
I can say “no” to many things but never to an artist who wants to show me his or her work. And this artist was different than most. In addition to being well-dressed and well-spoken, Carlos was neither trembling nor brash; he radiated an air of quiet self-confidence that was as unusual as it was appealing.
Still, I had no idea what to expect. And was totally unprepared for what I saw: black men whipping a white slave in one drawing; a naked white woman on the auction block in the other, black men bidding against each to take her back to work the fields and probably to exercise le droit du seigneur. My mind raced, trying to decide how I should ask the question I knew I would have to ask: what exactly was the message he was trying to convey?
Our second meeting took place at his “studio,” which turned out to be the spare bedroom of his sister’s home in Virginia. When I pulled into the driveway, I noticed a Mercedes in the garage. He explained that he didn’t have a studio yet, so he made his drawings leaning over his drawing paper, using the bed as his easel or drawing table, knees on the floor. After seeing more of the drawings, I decided to approach the question about his message indirectly. What motivated these drawings? Where did the idea come from?
And that’s when he told me about seeing the black guard discipline the white prisoner. What? You were in prison? Yes, sir. Served 13 years of a 20-year sentence, fully a third of his life. Released last year, seven years early, because of the Trump Administration’s prison reform bill, passed during the Administration’s early days. He even mentioned Jared Kush-ner by name, as the White House person responsible. As for the message, it is his hope his drawings will help white folks understand and feel what it’s like to walk in a black man’s shoes in America. Maybe, he hopes, things will change for the better as a result.
Carlos is savvy, he’s smart, he hustles and he desperately wants to make it as an artist. When we first met, his day job was doing the printing and copying work at Staples. Last month, in the middle of the pandemic, with 35 million Americans already having filed for unemployment, Carlos managed to land himself an even better-paying job selling cars at a Ford dealership in Virginia (he sold two his first month).
All I can say is, I’m pleased CCPArt will be remembered as the gallery that gave Carlos Walker his first solo exhibition. And, I’d say this, too: if Cen-tral Casting is looking for a poster boy for prison reform, come see WHAT IF? The prison drawings of Carlos Walker (10 JUNE- 5 JULY 2020)
Carlos is your man.