| June 7, 2012 | Lifestyle
Jennifer Blei Stockman (RIGHT) and Kara Walker, in front the artist’s recent Palmetto Libretto
Contemporary artist Kara Walker has been making statements with her work ever since the age of 24, when she debuted a groundbreaking, racially charged mural at the Drawing Center in SoHo. Her works have been described as having perverse or even nightmarish content, yet Walker is often simply holding a mirror to American society. The Anderson Ranch Arts Center is honoring Walker on July 21 with the prestigious National Artist Award during its annual Recognition Dinner. An expert on today’s global art scene, Jennifer Blei Stockman recently caught up with Walker at her NYC gallery, Sikkema Jenkins & Co., amid Walker’s preparation of large-scale pieces for international fairs.
JENNIFER BLEI STOCKMAN: Is your work meant to remind us of how brutal the antebellum era was, and is it always political?
KARA WALKER: Whether my work is actually historical and political is the first question I propose, by working with cheap materials and a devalued art form—cut paper silhouettes. I reference the images and stories that romanticize slavery, victimization, and the tendency of human behavior toward abuse. My work is idiosyncratic, always with real-time references, and my subjective take on the world. I refute the idea that it is “just” about slavery or the antebellum South. America makes its own myths, and I think the Civil War era contains the contradictions of our better ideals as a society
JS: Do you only reference American history, or does it also reflect non-American pasts?
KW: Much of my work takes on the question of blackness, American-ness, and woman-ness. I made a grandiose leap as an artist, assuming that I can say whatever I want within those realms. I don’t feel like I’m out here taking on the realities of life in the Congo, but I will refer to things that influence me, like Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, in relation to our contemporary take on a place like Congo—and touch those places that are uniquely human and tragically absurd.
JS: Do you feel your work liberates African Americans from a denigrating past?
KW: That’s not what I set out to do. I started as a reaction to the question of whether art can ever fully succeed in liberation politics. I did this by not speaking in the language of high art. I took on politics almost as a joke; it’s such a self-defeating task, like, “I’m going to make work that says all the things a black woman is supposed to and saves humanity from itself, but I’m not going to enjoy doing it and you’re not going to enjoy looking at it.” My work asks, “By what right could I ever assume to liberate anyone?” yet contradictorily picks up the mantle left by so many black artists before me and says, “But I have been charged with the task!”
JS: Are we in a post-race America, with Barack Obama as president?
KW: I think the phrase is a utopian ideal, and it’s foolhardy to jump into a “post-race” discussion just because we’ve had a biracial president for three years. The paradox is when you think “postrace,” you have to ask the question, “How long has America been a racist country?” My work comes from the reality that I’m a fully fleshed-out human being, or at least I have the potential to be, but there are labels: I’m a black person, I’m a woman, I’m an American. And I live with what those identities mean and how my humanity is limited based on racist and sexist structures that have long been in place.
JS: You were awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s MacArthur Fellowship when you were 27, you have had major surveys, including the Whitney, and every major art institution collects your work. Do you fear you have peaked?
KW: Well, thanks! Of course! This has been a fear since I was 24, when I got my big break. For the first 10 years of my career, I did a lot of evasive actions, to prove to myself and a viewer that I am not just making cut paper silhouettes, but to not give into that kind of external pressure to conform for the market. I always wanted to be an artist first, in a poetic sense, to really delve deep into my subject and use whatever method would best suit my interests. I mix up my way of working in the studio and have been happy so far that viewers, collectors, writers, theorists, and artists remain interested. For me every experience with a show and topic needs to feel new.
JS: Where do you go for inspiration?
KW: You don’t really look for inspiration. It comes or it doesn’t. I just keep looking at things that I like: faces, situations, books, art. The things that get to me are usually things I wouldn’t expect—sometimes science fiction, performance art. I [recently] had a conversation with Dr. James Cone—he’s a professor of theology at the Union Theological Seminary—and it wound up being a huge revelation to me about performance and spectacle and hope. I often do some research, but I am not a machine, unlike Andy Warhol. And I am less a historian than a kind of dilettante.
JS: In your view, what is your major contribution to the art world?
KW: It’s inspiration; knowing you’ve put something out in the world that’s rattled somebody, and they can do something with that rattling. I often wind up meeting students who have grown up with my work—already! That makes me feel old. That’s what made me want to make art in the first place, that feeling of wanting to talk back, in the language of art—and it’s what makes me want to go back to the studio every day.
JS: What was your “eureka” moment for the idea of using a 19th-century technique, with silhouettes?
KW: It wasn’t a big “a-ha,” but an ongoing part of a process. I was in graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design in 1992 and was really thinking about many things—history, identity, painting, and the “Other”—and was searching for a format beyond painting. Coming back to drawing, the silhouette suddenly seemed like the most succinct form, for being both a presence and an absence. It’s a technique that talks about history but is decidedly not about modernism. And it’s still a drawing. It’s still a line. It was “a-ha” in that I suddenly could coalesce a lot of different contradictory thoughts, forms, and ideas into one space and still be opaque and revelatory at the same time. My cartoonish narratives came later on.
JS: Are you currently creating puppets using silhouettes?
KW: I have been working with cut paper shadow puppets for a while now. And drawing on narratives from the Reconstruction era, mostly. There’s an intricate process of putting these puppets together to get them to do what you want them to do; using sticks and strings, I allow all the flaws in the mechanism to be present. The last thing in the world I want to be is a shadow puppeteer, but I’m getting kind of good at it. So it’s a problem to keep the technique dumbed down, or at least transparent.
photography by sari goodfriend