Exploring Cotton by Kara Walker beyond a simple glance. | by Cleveland Museum of Art | CMA Thinker

Exploring Cotton by Kara Walker beyond a simple glance. | by Cleveland Museum of Art | CMA Thinker

By Michelle Orioha, CMA Student Guide

The CMA Student Guide Program is the museum’s undergraduate training program. Students learn close-looking and engagement techniques and are given a variety of research and educational projects to draw connections between art and its relevance to our lives today. In this blog post, a first-year student guide, Michelle Orioha, leads readers through a close-looking activity that asks us to slow down and mindfully take in the details of Kara Walker’s Cotton.

I was fascinated by art and museums long before I joined the Student Guide Program at the CMA. After months of training and learning new ways to observe artwork in galleries with my cohort, I realized how much knowledge I was missing out on by rushing through the galleries too quickly, by not taking my time. Most museum visitors spend an average of 17 seconds standing in front of an artwork, and the majority of that time is actually spent reading the wall text rather than actually looking at the art! Now, think of the possible benefit of spending more time looking at an artwork without a label for guidance. Slowing down and encouraging myself to look before reading anything from the accompanying label has heightened my experience both in museums and in everyday life in numerous ways.

This year, the student guides spent a lot of time exploring and learning about the CMA’s exhibition Women in Print: Recent Acquisitions. A second (and third and fourth) glance at these prints showed viewers that the works in the show could actually be quite complex and difficult to understand. Many of the artists strove to provide their perspective on social issues of the 20th century for viewers to consider. Without context, it can be hard to figure out where to start when trying to understand a work, which is why I often enjoy guided activities that give me new ideas on how to interact with artworks. To see what I mean, try this special activity. You can do alone or with friends!

Let’s take a look at the work Cotton by Kara Walker, which was recently exhibited in the Women in Print exhibition. This activity is meant to allow you to use guided and sustained looking to explore the possible meaning behind Cotton, since it’s not immediately obvious at first glance. Follow along with me to take a closer look at this piece and to take stock of our own observations before learning more. You may have seen this piece at the CMA during its recent time on view, but you may also look at it online to do this activity!

  1. Look closely at the work from different angles for three minutes. Time yourself. Do not look at the label (trust me!).
  2. Now, take a moment to think about patterns and forms. Do you see any shapes or tones (colors) that seem to be repeating throughout the piece? What do these details bring to mind? What do you still have questions about?
  3. Next, take out a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and give yourself five minutes to sketch (give it a try)! Try to recreate a part of the artwork that stands out to you.
  4. Imagine writing a postcard to a family member or friend about your experience of seeing this piece at the CMA. What are the important details of this work you believe would be worthy to tell them? Is it the artwork itself or the message behind it that you feel would most important to describe? Take three minutes to write down your thoughts.
  5. Great job! If you completed all the steps above, you spent a whopping 11 minutes looking at this work of art! That’s almost 39 times longer than the average!

Let’s a take a few more moments to think about what you’ve learned from your observations alone. Consider these questions: What do you think are the most important things about this work? What emotions come to mind when looking at the work and specific details of the work? Do you enjoy this work, and why or why not? What is your biggest takeaway(s) from this experience?

Now, here is a bit of context for you: Walker’s works often revolve around racism and authority issues that have occurred throughout American history. The subject of this piece is the role of enslaved African American women in the United States, whose enforced labor supported the unlimited desire for cotton during the antebellum period. Now that you know Walker wanted to tackle issues of race and gender in this artwork, does your perception change? Do you notice any details you may have missed before? Finally, take a look at the label for the artwork.

If you’re reading this at the CMA, take a quick glance around the galleries. Do you feel like any other artworks seem to be sparking similar emotions or ideas as the Walker print? Feel free to use this new outlook and activity to explore other artworks in the museum or on Collection Online.

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