The Italian Job

The Root's Rebecca Walker hangs out with renowned artist Kara Walker in Turin, Italy, and on Facebook, where they talk about everything from salty dark chocolate to their kids to why Kara's no apologist for anti-black racism.


Kara Walker is tall, fashionable and reserved when I meet her in the lobby of the chic Residence Du Parc, a brutalist landmark of poured concrete adorned with iconic examples of modernist and postmodern art. Outside huge windows, Turin is celebrating itself: Italian flags drip from every window, flutter along every boulevard.

Kara wears flat leather oxfords, tights and a paper-thin leather jacket. She eyes me somewhat warily as I extend my arms for an embrace and launch into small talk, which I normally detest. Luckily, my bags have been lost and I indulged in a truly remarkable spa treatment the night before, so I have plenty to talk about.

Kara says little. She's been working on the installation of her show we're both here in Italy to support. The necessary projectors have not arrived. The show is to open in five days, and today we have to teach a class to art students. I sense she'd like to get back to the gallery, and the class is a distraction. She twirls her hair as we wait for the taxi.

At the class, the students are on fire. They've studied our work and want to know about memory and myth, the creative process and its demands. Kara and I sit behind a paint-splattered table and do our best. I'm jet-lagged but exuberant, thanks to a piping-hot cappuccino; Kara is laconic and soft-spoken. But then I see it -- a gentle smile, then a big laugh followed by a series of confident assessments of student work.

As the day wears on, we find a groove. We tag-team it, develop a rapport, give everything we can in the time allotted. Driving back to the Du Parc to recover and prepare for dinner, we talk about our kids. Hers is starting high school, into fashion, gorgeous. Mine is 6, getting ready for soccer camp, and I miss him with an ache I can't begin to put into words.

The next five days are a whirlwind of activity. We teach the students, I present my memoir Baby Love at Il Circolo dei Lettori on the same night that Jonathan Franzen reads from Freedom. I introduce Kara's show, A Negress of Noteworthy Talent, to a full gallery, and Melissa Harris-Perry and Jennifer Richeson follow up with talks about the black body and the neurological workings of prejudice. The press descends and recommends.

Later, I steal away to the Egyptian Museum. We dine at the home of Olga Gambari, the show's remarkable curator, and shop the Ballon, one of Europe's largest open-air markets, where I snag a fabulous Prada-esque red coat for five euros and a dress made of African wax cloth for 10, while Kara snaps pics of me on her iPhone.

On our last night, Kara and I trip through a chocolate festival we discover in one of the main palazzos. She turns me on to dark chocolate with sea salt and takes silly pictures of us crossing the street. The air is cold, the night sky is cobalt and we've got that buzz: It's over. The whole thing is a hit -- and now it's time to go home.

I return to Maui and email Kara to gauge her interest in answering a few questions for The Root. Her response? "Torino feels like a dream," she writes. She's already deep into preparing for the next things: two major shows, and a spread for an Italian fashion mag. It's been two days.

"Yes, yes," I write. "Me, too. I've got a book to finish, and some Ph.D. candidates to teach in Sweden next week." She FBs me back. "Oh, OK. Send the questions. I'll take a crack at it."