Brilliant & Badass: Kara Walker in Conversation

While I have already talked about contemporary artist Kara Walker in a previous post, I recently got to see a program at the Art Institute of Chicago, in partnership with the
Chicago Humanities Festival, featuring Kara Walker in conversation with the AIC’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Lisa Dorin.

So, to clarify, I got to see my favorite contemporary artist give a talk at my favorite art museum.

Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago Facebook Page.

Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago Facebook Page.

You can imagine my excitement:

The conversation surrounded Walker’s new exhibition called Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!,
which she created specifically for the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition’s title refers to Barack Obama’s 1995 book Dreams from My Father, in which he quoted Jamaican political leader Marvin Garvey when talking about the challenges of community organizing in Chicago. My excitement for this conversation with
Kara Walker was two-fold.  While getting to hear Walker’s thoughts and motivations for her newest work directly from her (followed by an exclusive installation preview) was pretty fantastic, it was even more exhilarating to discover that Kara Walker is just as cool and brilliant in person as I had hoped.  Dressed entirely in black, wearing gorgeous heeled leather boots and funky mismatched bangles, she walked into the sold-out theater to loud applause and “woop woops!” from the audience.  Her swept-up, structured bun actually reminded me of a few hairstyles depicted in her famed silhouette cut-outs.


Kara Walker (left) in conversation with Lisa Dorin (right), The Art Institute of Chicago,
February 20, 2013.

One of the first topics that Lisa Dorin delved into was Walker’s interest in silhouettes, and why she began using all-black paper cut-outs in her work.  Walker said that
she began using paper, among other materials, as a response to her problems with painting.  During graduate school, she felt that oil painting–having been accepted as the premier medium in the western art historical canon for centuries–was a patriarchal medium that she was being forced to sidle up to in order to be considered a “good” and talented artist.  Throughout school, she tended to gravitate toward using water color paint and other “second class” media in her work, in part, to critique the institution of western painting.

“Slavery! Slavery!” (1997), Kara Walker, Walker Arts Center

“Slavery! Slavery!” (1997), Kara Walker, Walker Arts Center

Walker said that she had always been drawn to the grand style of history painting, and its
ability to captivate audiences through story-telling and mythology.  Using paper cut-outs allowed her to reach the same bombastic scale of history paintings while, as she described it, still “going rogue” by keeping out of step with traditional art media by using all-black paper and literally filling gallery rooms with her panoramic stories.  Her use of silhouettes often feature very simplistic and caricatured figures, which play in to the message of her work.  She has said:

“The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that’s also
what the stereotype does.”

Walker’s Rise Up Ye Mighty Race! exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago revolves
around ideas discussed in The Turner Diaries, referred to by many as “The Neo-Nazi
Bible,” written in 1978 by the white nationalist William Luther Pierce.  When Dorin asked Walker to describe The Turner Diaries to the audience, in case we were not
familiar with it, Walker was quiet at first, as though trying to find the right words.  She started with singular, descriptive ones:

“Paranoia…sci-fi…fearful ramblings…Basically from the perspective of a white supremacist, it describes the world as it would be if the power structure were Black and Jewish.  I’m very interested in texts that don’t welcome [people like] me in…with my background and my

Cover Art by Kara Davison.

Cover Art by Kara Davison.

She went on to say that it is important not to dismiss texts like The Turner Diaries,
especially as a black female artist.  This book, and texts like it, have incredible power and influence in hate groups, and are known to have been revered by white separatists who have been convicted of murder (ie: Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City
bomber).  Not only is it a piece of writing that leaves no room for nuance and ambiguity, but it essentially instructs the reader to kill.  Walker stated that within Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!, she is trying to explore the different ways that races are  co-dependent on each other to justify their own ideologies, even within
these extremist texts
Think about it: in order to even have whiteness, you need
its opposite–blackness–to define it.   What is light without dark?  Even in
The Turner Diaries, as Walker said, they “still needed black bodies to clean up the mess.”

Kara Walker, "The Theater" from 'Rise Up Ye Mighty Race', 2012, graphite crayon and pastel on paper

Kara Walker, “The Theater” from ‘Rise Up Ye Mighty Race’, 2012, graphite crayon and pastel on paper

[*Note the stereotypes of female blackness illustrated above:
the 70s afro and the mammy figure.]

View of Installation in AIC.

View of Installation in AIC.

View of Installation in AIC.

View of Installation in AIC.

Throughout the entire conversation, Walker discussed elements of her art in a completely understandable and relatable way.  While she did comment on her quick rise to fame, it wasn’t because she enjoyed talking about how fantastic she is; she referred to her popularity in order to discuss how it affected her growth as an artist and her efforts to stay relevant. Gaining international acclaim and success for her silhouette
cut-outs, having a “mid-career survey” exhibition at the Walker Art Center in 1997, and having an installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has put a lot of pressure on her stylistically.  During the conversation, she commented that
she didn’t want everything she created after these milestones to seem repetitive, or “just a stretch on the same style.”  She said one of her biggest worries amidst everything was
“Does everyone already understand what I’m doing…my mythology…better than I do?”  In response to an audience member’s question about how Walker views the roll of the
audience in her art, she said:

“I’d like us all–author, object and viewer–to be implicated in the work…in what we think we see.”

Update: The Art Institute of Chicago has posted this conversation with Kara Walker on
youtube, and if you have an hour to spare and an interest in Walker’s work, it’s really worth the watch!


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