Fons Americanus, 2019;
Tate Modern, London
The Marvelous Sugar Baby;
Domino Sugar Refining Plant, 2014
pastel on paper
182.9 × 205.7 cm
Shifty Shape Shifter, 2016
Cut paper on paper
96.5 × 127 cm
Yesterdayness in America Today, 2020
and watercolour on paper
Cut paper on paper
78.7 × 52.1 cm
© Kara Walker; Courtesy Sprüth Magers and Sikkema Jenkins & Co
“Everything that I
do is political”
Courageous, radical, consistent: using her silhouette panoramas and sculptures, the world-renowned American artist KARA WALKER encourages viewers to confront their own prejudices
n 2014, the American artist Kara Elizabeth Walker faced the greatest challenge of her already internationally
successful career thus far. Commissioned by Creative
Time, an organisation that has been realising projects with estab- lished artists in public spaces for four decades, she was supposed to create a monumental piece of work for the Domino Sugar Refin- ery located on New York’s East River in the Williamsburg neighbourhood.
Walker achieved a blockbuster event with her first sculpture. At 23 metres long, 11 metres high and requiring over 200 employees to install, the monumental Sphinx-like woman made of polystyrene foam, coated in 80 tons of fine white sugar corns, was the centre- piece in the hall. The sculpture had the caricatured features and kerchief of “Aunt Jemima”, which on one hand depicts the stereo- typical character of a black “Mammy”, a cook or servant, and on the other hand serves as a reflection of the successful “Aunt Jemima” brand that specialises in pancake mix and syrup. The artist ex- plained back then that the sticky, dark, sweet-smelling syrup, which clung to the refinery’s walls and pillars, evoked “associations of slave trade.” “Sugar is just like cotton – it is so omnipresent that people are rarely aware of how these products are produced.” Moreover, it is often linked to exploitation, degradation, abuse and other inhuman forms of humiliation. The balance between power structures and their numerous derailments resulting in violence – these are the topics that Kara Walker’s work has repeatedly ad- dressed since the beginning of her career.
Previously, she had worked on projects featuring substantial
dimensions. However, not in a two-dimensional sense, not sculp- turally. Walker’s first exhibit at the Drawing Center in New York
in 1994, shortly after she completed her degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, transformed her into a shooting star. On a 15- metre-long white wall, she created a panorama consisting of sil- houettes, a folklore cut-paper technique heralding back to the 19th century. “I decided against pursuing painting, because I regarded it as being deeply rooted in traditional patriarchal modernism. In- stead I was looking for a medium that would allow me to better un- derstand what it means to have a black body – not just now, but also from a historical perspective.” She found it in Victorian handi- craft that was regarded back then as being a “second- class ladies’ art.”
Walker decided to focus precisely on this genre fraught with prejudices. She started composing seemingly idyllic scenes worthy of poetry, featuring a couple courting, for example. However, a closer look reveals that this actually portrays a white man abusing a black female slave. Or it appears as if a mother is calling for her child to come and play. However, it portrays a child being brutally beaten by a white “master”. The gamut of cruelty depicted by Walk- er – black on white or the other way around, by means of wall-fill- ing frescos, panoramas or cycloramas, which are round pictures – depicts the horrific repertoire of the slave trade in the southern United States from the late eighteenth century to the start of the American Civil War in 1861.
Walker uses the cut-paper genre and the manner in which silhou- ette figures are seemingly only capable of producing an apparently intact world and society, leading the audience to confront their own views entrenched in racist ideology – or by the same token, the degree of empathy felt when observing the deeply unsettling and touching tableaux of institutionalised, systemic discrimination both in the past and present. She brilliantly and precisely links abomination to abomination, without drifting off into the realm of being illustrative, narrative or even blatant. Instead, these cycles, which are sometimes combined with colourful light projections, rather resemble untiring manifestos intended to expel demons. Taken in their entirety, they serve as a visual reminder of perpetu- ated clichés, bias and violence, yet without making accusations. They go directly under the skin, thus enabling them to break through rigid horizons of perception.
The silhouette series, which Deutsche Bank already presented in its exhibition hall in Berlin in 2002, should be appreciated against the backdrop of a highly multifaceted graphic body of work, which is also, for example, featured on an entire floor in the Deutsche Bank skyscrapers in Frankfurt. There are now plans to send it on an exhibition tour for the first time. Her work comprises countless sketches, studies, collages, typographies, diary entries, typewritten reflections, works featuring ink, graphite, watercolours or gauche. Walker draws quickly and impulsively, while her exquisite works feature a dash of nuanced irony and are reminiscent of French painter and graphic artist Honoré Daumier, one of her artistic forebears, in addition to the Spaniard Francisco de Goya and the Belgian James Ensor. “Drawing is intimate,” says Walker, who is publicly exhibiting newspaper cut-outs, postcards, satirical car- toons and advertising materials from her archival resources for the first time. “I am conducting a conversation with myself, with the part of me that is seething with ideas, to ultimately reaffirm my own existence.”
Even as a child, the daughter of a secretary and an art professor, she began to draw. In 1983, her father Larry Walker became direc- tor of the art history programme at Georgia State University in
Atlanta and thus, 20 years after the end of segregation, Kara landed in Stone Mountain, previously a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. Today, Walker, who in 2019 was the first African American artist to win a Hyundai Commission (sponsored by the eponymous South Korean car manufacturer) in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London, has achieved almost everything. “That was the big prize,” she re- calls. “Fons Americanus” is a 13-metre tall working fountain, sculpted in a baroque style, and represents the post-colonial coun- terpart of the Victoria Memorial, situated in front of Buckingham Palace since its unveiling in 1911 to commemorate the achieve- ments of the British Empire. This work by Walker recounts the his- tory of the transatlantic slave trade, while questioning the culture of remembrance in Europe. Instead of a golden angel, an Afro- Brazilian Venus stands at the summit of the fountain, with plumes of water cascading from her breasts into the basin. The water serves as a fateful connection between the American, African and European continents. Just like the audience blockbuster “Sugar Baby” in New York, “Fons Americanus” was also a temporary piece, which according to the artist was a “homage to all those who have been exploited and abused throughout time and all over the world.” “Everything that I do is political.”
TEXT: Eva Karcher
ILLUSTRATION: Carla Fuentes
Drawing is like conducting
a conversation with myself
The artist Kara Walker
in her studio, painted for WERTE by Carla Fuentes, who is based in Spain
The American, born in 1969 in Stockton, California, is one of the most renowned artists of her generation. In an exhibition tour planned for 2021, she will present
her graphic works: “A Black Hole is Every- thing a Star Longs to Be” is intended to start at the Kunstmuseum Basel (5 June
to 19 September) and then travel to Schirn Kunsthalle Frankurt (15 October to 16 Jan- uary 2022) and finally to the De Pont
Museum Tilburg. In addition, Walker is
realising an artwork for the “Replace Rubens” project at the Kunst-Station
Sankt Peter Köln (from 8 June).
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