I didn’t want a completely passive viewer. Art means too much to me.
— Kara Walker
It was almost a year ago that Minneapolis Southwest High School (SWHS) signed on to craft a partnership in conjunction with the coming exhibition Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. I knew Kara Walker’s work was not for all high schools, but I also knew that SWHS has a history of integrating the arts and engaging students in a deep exploration of their own creativity. The school decided to include two groups of students: 11th graders taking the integrated Annenberg U.S. History and Art class, and juniors and seniors in the Advanced Fine Arts Seminar. We hoped it would spark students in this diverse community talking about race.
In the end, the students did much more than just talking — and their responses to Kara Walker’s work were anything but passive. They went deep into issues of race, identity, sexuality, violence, and the power of art.
This spring, each class came to the Art Center for tours of the Kara Walker exhibition. Then, with the support of principal Bill Smith and guidance from several teachers including art teacher Cecily Spano, history teacher, Nonie Kouneski, theatre teacher Chris Fisher, dance teacher Colleen Callahan, and teaching artist Leah Nelson, the students were invited to create art pieces responding to and expressing their experience with the work of Kara Walker.
The Walker invited them to return to the galleries to share their pieces with Kara Walker’s cut paper murals, paintings, and films as inspiration and backdrop. This happened on two nights. On April 26, the Annenberg history students invited their families, teachers, other students and friends to the “ response”. On May 8, the advanced fine arts students did the same.
Some of what I remember:
A puzzle placed throughout the galleries that when assembled listed the range of stereotypes one student had experienced….a spoken word dialogue about what is–and isn’t–power…a drummer providing jarring staccato…shadowy photographs depicting conflict. And on the second evening… a reading from a history textbook about slavery that ended with a strangled scream…a deceptively graceful dance to Billie Holiday’s haunting Strange Fruit…a frightening poem and performance reenacting rape….and much more. Listing what they did is insufficient to describe the power of what they created and what we all experienced together.
Both evenings closed with lively and moving discussions between the student performers and the audience which underscored for me why partnerships like this are an important part of my work at the Walker. The impact of Kara Walker’s work on these students was obvious and their courage in sharing so much of themselves with others will stay with me for a long time.