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Li’l Patch of Woods

Li’l Patch of Woods

Kara Walker Li’l Patch of Woods 1997 Etching, aquatint, and spitbite in black on ivory China paper laid down on white wove paper (chine collé)

Edition of 35
Image size: 12 x 8 7/8 inches (30.5 x 22.5 cm)
Paper size: 18 x 15 inches (45.7 x 38.1 cm)
Initialed and dated lower right, numbered lower left in graphite
(Inventory #32353)

Kara Walker’s “Li’l Patch of Woods,” like many of her works is ambiguous, open-ended, and full of friction. Walker uses stereotypes to illuminate hidden realities, both clear and confused. The reception of Walker’s work has been just as full of stereotypes and confusion.

• One museum describes that “‘Li’l Patch of Woods; depicts an enigmatic birthing figure being discovered by Civil War troops (it is unclear if they are Union or Confederate troops, and any narrative remains murky and inexplicable).”

• Another states that this work is “set against the backdrop of the American South during the Civil War era.”

• A third states, “This sensitively drawn and etched print shows a desperate young woman who has run away from the slave owner. Forced by her birth pangs to pause in her flight from the armed searchers in the background, she looks back in fear as they pass close to her hiding place. The head of a child who emerges from her body takes the form of West African sculptures depicting birth, a theme commonly shown in Igbo culture but rarely, if ever, depicted in Western art.”

If one looks closely at the imagery, it is hard to entirely discern the age, gender and race of the birthing figure. Small elements give strong hints, but nothing is conclusive. The same holds true for the face of the “baby.” What is most visible is the compromised and vulnerable position the figure giving birth is in, compared to the armed assortment of buttoned-up figures carrying assorted weapons. Within the picture plane, there’s nothing definitive that shows it’s in the South or during the Civil War. Strength and vulnerability, agency and reception, these are some of the themes in Walker’s work that utilize not only stereotypical imagery, but also the inherent murkiness of using etching (most often associated with European masters such as Rembrandt [further referencing another historical era]) to an elegant surface for such a rural, rugged and tough scenario.