The first full-scale American museum survey of the work of artist Kara Walker premieres at the Walker Art Center February 17–May 13, 2007. Organized by Philippe Vergne, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, and Yasmil Raymond, Assistant Curator, at the Walker, in close collaboration with the artist, Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love features works ranging from her signature black-paper silhouettes to film animations to more than 100 works on paper. After its presentation at the Walker, the exhibition will travel to the ARC/Musee d’art moderne de la ville de Paris (June 20 – September 9, 2007), the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (October 11, 2007–February 3, 2008), and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (February 17–May 11, 2008).
Kara Walker is among the most complex and prolific American artists of her generation. Over the past decade, she has gained national and international recognition for her room-size tableaux depicting historical narratives haunted by sexuality, violence, and subjugation but made using the genteel 18th-century art of cut-paper silhouettes. Set in the American South before the Civil War, Walker’s compositions play off stereotypes to portray, often grotesquely, life on the plantation, where masters and mistresses and slave men, women, and children enact a subverted version of the past in an attempt to reconfigure their status and representation.
Over the years the artist has used drawing, painting, colored-light projections, writing, shadow puppetry, and, most recently, film animation to narrate her tales of romance, sadism, oppression, and liberation. Walker’s scenarios thwart conventional readings of a cohesive national history and expose the collective, and ongoing, psychological injury caused by the tragic legacy of slavery. Her work leads viewers through an aesthetic experience that evokes a critical understanding of the past and proposes an examination of contemporary racial and gender stereotypes.
Walker’s visual epics systematically and critically walk a line—the “color line,” to quote W.E.B. Du Bois—that moves us from the antebellum South to an analysis of the sustaining economic, social, and individual power structures still in place today. Deploying an acidic sense of humor, she examines the dialectic of pleasure and danger, guilt and fulfillment, desire and fear, race and class. She has said, “the black subject in the present tense is the container for specific pathologies from the past and it is continuously growing and feeding off those maladies.”
Organized deliberately as a narrative, the exhibition articulates the parallel shifts in Walker’s visual language and subject matter: from a critical analysis of the history of slavery as a microcosm of American history through the structure of romantic literature and Hollywood film to a revised history of Western modernity and its relationship to the notion of “Primitivism.”
The Walker Art Center began collecting Kara Walker’s work in 1996 with the acquisition of six ink drawings from 1994 and the etching/aquatint The Means to an End . . . A Shadow Drama in Five Acts (1995). Also in the collection are Do You Like Crème in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk? (1997), a suite of 66 drawings in various media; the cut-paper mural Endless Conundrum, An African Anonymous Adventuress (2001); the video animation Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions (2004); and a portfolio of 15 lithographs entitled Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) (2005).
In 1997 Kara Walker created a new commissioned work for the Walker’s group exhibition no place (like home)—the monumental 85-foot-long cyclorama Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery or “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life)” See the Peculiar Institution as never before! All cut from black paper by the able hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and leader in her Cause. Her work has also been included in the Walker exhibitions The Cities Collect (2000), American Tableaux (2001), and the currently running Quartet: Barney, Gober, Levine, Walker (April 17, 2005–December 9, 2007).
Born in 1969 in Stockton, California, Kara Walker received her BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and her MFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. Since that time, she has created more than 30 room-size installations and hundreds of drawings and watercolors, and has been the subject of more than 40 solo exhibitions. She is the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Achievement Award (1997) and, most recently, the Deutsche Bank Prize (2004) and the Larry Aldrich Award (2005). She was the United States representative for the 25th International São Paulo Biennial in Brazil (2002). She currently lives in New York, where she is associate professor of visual arts at Columbia University, New York.
To accompany the exhibition, the Walker will publish a 300-page illustrated catalogue containing critical essays by scholars and cultural critics on the myriad social, racial, and gender issues present in Walker’s work by exhibition curator Philippe Vergne; cultural and literary historian Sander L. Gilman; art historian and critic Thomas McEvilley; art historian Robert Storr; and poet and novelist Kevin Young. The publication will feature more than 150 four-color images of the artist’s work, a complete exhibition history and bibliography as well as an illustrated lexicon of the recurring themes and motifs in the artist’s most influential installations by Yasmil Raymond. Kara Walker will contribute a 16-page insert to the catalogue. The catalogue will be distributed by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 155 Sixth Avenue, Second Floor, New York, NY 10013, 800.338.2665 (phone), 212.627.9484 (fax), and is available at the Walker Art Center Shop, 612.375.7638 (phone), 612.375.7565 (fax). ISBN 0-935640-86-X