Kara Walker makes some of the most unsettling and thought-provoking art that you'll see anywhere these days. Her principal subject is power and its abuses, most often approached in terms of racial, sexual, or physical subjugation. She draws upon history and literature, and upon habit, preconception, and aspiration, to construct an imagined world that manages to be both immediately recognizable and constantly suggestive. Though she tends to borrow the appearances and language of the past, the real strength of her art lies in its uncomfortable pertinence to contemporary experience. It is equally remarkable that an art that poses so many difficult questions enjoys such genuine popularity.
Kara Walker's most immediately recognizable form is the silhouette cut-out. This allows her not only to evoke the world of the antebellum south that is the recurrent setting for her narratives, but it also means that her imagery is somewhat generalized. This, I think, is the key to both its immediate palatability and its broader long-term relevance. It is a crucial political device.
Her splendid retrospective, "Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love", which was at the Whitney in the winter of 2007-08 (in between appearances at the Walker in Minneapolis, the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris, the Hammer in LA, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth) was widely thought of as one of the most remarkable shows of the last decade. The New York Times called it simply "Brilliant".
Next week she will be the honoree at Brooklyn Museum's eighth annual Women in the Arts luncheon, the latest artist in a series that has included Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman, Annie Leibovitz, Maya Lin, and the Guerilla Girls. The luncheon benefits the artistic and cultural programs of the Brooklyn Museum and its Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
I spoke to Kara Walker recently, and she proved to be every bit as thoughtful in conversation as she is in her art. She was also funny, refreshingly candid, and happily self-deprecating. We eventually got into a fascinating discussion about her latest commission, and a broader conversation about the presence of violence in her work, but we began by talking about next week's event in Brooklyn.
Kara, what do you think is the significance of the honor you're about to receive from Brooklyn Museum?
I'm a little embarrassed about the whole thing really, because I think I'm a little over-honored sometimes! But the museum does have a commitment to women artists, though it's funny because I wind up not thinking about myself as a woman artist. Or I forget. That's a significant thing, I guess.
Do you find the label "woman artist" frustrating? Or any of the other labels that are constantly attached to your name: African-American, silhouette-artist, issues of race, sexuality, or violence?
... And issues of representation more than all the other things! I was just thinking about this today. The problem is that the overarching joke of my work was that very early on I positioned myself as a "negress", and there was a fictional construct that embraced this anachronistic and totally racist naming that I used as a tool. But it's been like a pie in my face. It's the naming device that stuck!
I always think that stereotyping is an implicit problem for art that wants to be political. If the work is too obviously political, it immediately turns off the very people that it intends to reach.
I have that exact same opinion!
Is it something that affects your own work?
Well, I took a political stance early on, but I don't think my work is overtly political. I respond to events. It's almost political by accident, because it's quite personal, but I'm also aware that who I am is shaped by the world I live in, and that world is also informed by mythologies and stereotypes and narratives that move beyond the inner dream space and into real action.
I grew up around a fair amount of work that was politically charged. A lot of the late sixties, early seventies work that I saw as a child was pretty heavily political, coming out of the black arts movement and Vietnam and post-Vietnam, and I felt that very problem. Artists aspired to having issues thought about and talked about, but their work wasn't necessarily doing that at all. It was doing just the opposite.
Well, if I might ask you a directly political question, how would you characterize the current condition of racism in this country?
Right now, it's gone right back to the worst it's ever been. A couple of years ago you might have thought there were conversations going on about education and immigration, but now with the Tea Party and all this classic racist hubbub that's raising its head about having a black president or a bi-racial president or whatever you want to call him, things that I feared and suspected haven't gone away. I'm a little bit grateful for it frankly because when things are underground you just feel paranoid and harbor fears. I'd rather see things paraded out in all their gaudy splendor!
You mentioned your use of the word "negress". How would you feel if you were introduced to the Brooklyn audience as the "emancipated negress" that you sometimes identified in your titles.
There were a couple of long-winded titles for different works and shows where the word "negress" was prominent - partially as a device and partially as a way of distancing myself from myself, or liberating myself from myself, or something. It's my naming device. It's like a lot of words - I understand the context in which I'm using it, and it's an offensive tactic against an institution. I have rather stopped doing that now. It got a little tired after a while. There was a "negress period" in the naming of shows and works.
So how would you like to be introduced now?
Honestly, it depends on the situation. The piece that I've just done, for a show [at the Wattis Institute] in San Francisco about Huckleberry Finn, has a title that names me as "Mr Kara Walkerberry". (I did a big sweeping Huckleberry Finn-type piece, that pretty much locks into the Huckleberry Finn narrative, and it has a big sweeping title.) If I had to write my own introductory statement for the Brooklyn Museum, which I know I won't get to do, I'm sure I might be able to find something appropriate for the occasion - and maybe poke fun a little bit at my diva fetish!
Tell me a little more about the Huckleberry Finn commission. It's called The Nigger Huck Finn Pursues Happiness Beyond the Narrow Constraints of your Overdetermined Thesis on Freedom - Drawn and Quartered by Mister Kara Walkerberry, with Condolences to The Authors.
Yes. I was approached to do a piece for the Huckleberry Finn show and I spent several months humming and hawing about it because after I had the big traveling show ["Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love"] I was feeling a little reactionary against myself and my work and against the very stereotypes you were talking about: the silhouette-artist, the negress, all of that. So I was going in circles trying to figure out where I was headed, and what I was interested in in my work. One of the things that happened at the same time was that here in New York I had to reinstall the first piece I ever made (at MoMA) - I was the only person who knew how to put it together! So I installed it and I actually felt really good about that experience. There was something tactile about working with the big pieces of paper, and seeing the old cut-outs and all my little notes that I'd forgotten about.
So I just thought, "What the hell, it's a literary show and a lot of this early work was at least loosely and histrionically literary-based, so why don't I just do that! Stop trying to be so clever and outdo yourself. Do something that you're good at." So that gave me a little bit of freedom. I did a bunch of watercolors first to try to figure it out. I'd read Huckleberry Finn before, but I think I read it more lovingly this time. I felt that I had matured into the book in a way - which is odd, but I just felt that I had a better understanding of Huck, because he's an abused child and a seeker of freedom, and a number of other things.
I thought that part of the problem with the show, and maybe why I was feeling stuck on it for a couple of months, was there's nothing about that book that's supposed to be pinned down or locked in to a historical framework, which is what the show is doing. Everybody wants to get a piece of Huck - all sorts of historians and literary historians and lovers of Mark Twain and even people who want to ban the book all want to pin down the significance of Huck Finn and Jim. It's moved beyond the author's intent in a way that I find hilarious! So what I wound up doing was a big old sweeping piece with many depictions of different Huck Finn-like characters, complete with a straw hat. I wound up thinking about Huck as an object of desire. (He's also in competition with his own desire of subjectivity and all of that kind of stuff.) I was also thinking about Huck and Topsy from Uncle Tom's Cabin, because they're both freedom-loving characters, though one of their authors intended more of a moralizing agenda. So Topsy is floating around in there, and there's also a tiny, little bit - and maybe there shouldn't have been! - about Death in Venice where Tadzio is the object of desire. And then I threw in different sorts of problems, including the introduction of all of the framed watercolors on top of the silhouette cut-outs. So there's a sweeping landscape and then there's a little bit of a denial of that with the superficial material on top. It all made sense while I was making it, but I don't know if it's clear at all because in the end it's all a big, happy-looking, sexy piece.
Is there much violence in it? People rather expect a degree of violence in your work.
I don't know. They're just stationary figures cut out of paper so they don't do too much harm. There's some suggested violence, I guess, but not too much - there might be an axe in somebody's hand, or there might be a stone being held over somebody's head, but there's also a very longing kiss right in the middle. Huck was a pretty gentle figure, but I think Huck's become caught in a universe where it's being demanded he make sense. That's a kind of violence, I think.
I find the implied violence in your work intriguing. In the past you've talked about your own "memories of violence".
How can I speak about this? I think I've moved beyond that, maybe even as a teenager I moved beyond it, but I think that it exists in a lot of black families - and in a lot of American families, maybe of families in general. I know that in my family there are histories of violence that are internal family things, and that are oftentimes dealt with internally. By internally I mean inside the family group, but also partly inside ourselves. You know, self-hatred and hostility and rage and this cycle that won't break. Those are things that I recognize in myself and I recognize in other family members. You know those sort of stories. They become part of our history. That's why I identify with Huck.
Another memorable expression you've used was that your work was "about how easy it is to commit atrocities". What does that mean?
Mmm, yes. It's a problem that I have with making art. (Not that all art is an atrocity!) Very often it comes out of a place in yourself - I mean "myself" - that's a surprise. You meet your dark side. And then you get along with it. There is something very strange and unsettling for me about making a work that doesn't fit with what's the norm or what's acceptable. There's something both liberating about it and challenging. I can imagine it doing more harm than good. I don't know if making art is any better or worse than committing crime. I hope it is. I'm not sure.
Let's finish with one final comment of yours. You once said "I want to discover who I am beyond the skin I'm in". Does that still hold true?
I think so, but I don't know if it's possible. I think that one of the things that I keep discovering in my work, especially in the last couple of years since the big show, is that I always keep coming back to the skin that I'm in because that's what I'm about. I wouldn't be interested in denying history or culture or race, but I want to move into a place where all that stuff can come along for the ride but the whole story doesn't get bogged down in race. It's about humanity.