Walker programmers gathered ’round this week to start talking about artist Kara Walker and an upcoming show of her work at the Walker Art Center. (No, you won’t be getting dates, titles, and juicy tidbits out of me — so back off.) But my head definitely started spinning during that two-hour meeting, and while I consider myself a fangirl of her work, I hadn’t given that much time to uninterrupted consideration of Ms. Walker before. And suddenly I found myself in a blogging mood.
Endless Conundrum, An African Anonymous Adventuress, 2001, paper, T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2002.
Without a doubt, Endless Conundrum: An African Anonymous Adventuress, is one of the most talked about (and probably complained about) works currently on display at the Walker. Which doesn’t surprise me — Kara’s work strikes me as something for which it is impossible to NOT have a reaction. You walk in the gallery and you see a stunning mural of beautiful and graceful paper silhouettes. You look a little closer and the uneasiness starts to creep in around the edges. Kara’s got more to show you than pretty silhouettes, and listening in probably won’t be near as nice as visiting your favorite club. I’ve left the galleries feeling vaguely guilty and ashamed, but I’m not sure of what. Her work is full of issues: sex, race, violence, and power. And it only gets more complicated the further in you go. My colleagues in Education recently spent a four-hour retreat just brainstorming ideas on how to BEGIN to approach programming for an exhibition of Kara’s work.
Kara doesn’t just give it up. You’ve gotta work for it. That’s one of the reasons I admire her so much. She came to the Walker last summer for a dialogue with curator Philippe Vergne, and I fell in love with her. She has such a deliberate and thoughtful way of speaking. I was totally engrossed. I love the way narrative plays out in her work, and there’s no way to guess how the story will come out. It just plays on the wall, sometimes independent of the viewer, and sometimes with the viewers unwitting participation. I love the way she represents herself as “the Negress.” (For more info on Kara Walker and the Negress, check out these awesome clips from the PBS Art:21 series.) Appropriating the title creates a compelling sense of mythology, and I like to think of her as a traveler moving through her own works as a character in each story.
For sure, Kara’s work touches on some very sensitive issues — it’s not meant to be a warm, comfy, and fluffy place. You don’t go there to relax. You go there to engage — yourself, the work, other visitors, other cultures, other ideas. I’m looking forward to seeing how this exhibition unfolds. I think it will be a challenge for both the Walker institution and the Twin Cities community, but with great challenges also comes great opportunities for civic conversation, and that’s what I’m looking forward to most.