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."
And so you have it. From Kara, with love:
The Root: Tell me about the inquiry from Vogue Italia.
Kara Walker: Well, the fashion shoot was for La Repubblica — the Sunday supplement, nothing so real as Vogue. The art director communicated through her minions that she wanted to do a kind of edgy, underground, street-art thing with my "drawings and watercolors," like that makes any kind of sense.
When I think drawings and watercolors, I picture an older gentlewoman on her wood-paneled enclosed porch, contemplating nature. The proposal was to put me in sculpted dresses and jewelry and really have me "working" a mashup of "street art." It was a working-artist, woman-as-power-object thing. I had to say no. It went from funny-ironic to not funny in a single email.
TR: What was the most interesting response to the work in Turin?
KW: The overall reaction surprised me — they were so enthusiastic. It did feel like the early '90s, though, as if the conversations around multiculturalism had never happened. I felt like I had to keep explaining that my work didn't represent the unified point of view of all black women, and that there may be overlaps, but ultimately my work moves between representations of black history and culture of all stripes — literary, visual, oral — and my own more uncontrollable self, the desiring machine.
TR: You repeatedly speak of creating work for a woman of color, but many suggest the opposite and claim your work is an extension of white fascination with black stereotypes. Thoughts?
TR: I think you are often critiqued quite separately from your personal, cultural environ. How does family fit into your work and process?
KW: All of the major black women artists who were outspoken critics of my work made sure I knew it was Personal, dragging the fact of my motherhood into their discussion, or my marriage at the time, and especially my parents, who were known to many of them, as though this sort of family drama would keep me in check. Personally, I don't want to drag my family into this odd world I inhabit most of the time. They are proud of my success, to be sure, but I think many of the images I produce would, in the right light, cause them distress.
My family might disagree with the statement that "family is a big part of my life," actually. It has the tone of big reunions and no boundaries. It is true that they have traveled to many shows with me and have examples of my work around. My parents defended me and my right to be of my own mind my whole life. I cannot say I do the same for my daughter — that's kind of a joke.
TR: What's up for you now — where are you headed with the work?
KW: I just opened two pretty different shows in New York. The show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. has a large suite of large-scale drawings and relief prints. The other, at Lehmann Maupin Gallery downtown, is a show of video works featuring a shadow-puppet piece called Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi's Blue Tale.
I have to say that this double-barreled event is important for me. I can't quite name why that is, but I think this way of working — fluid drawings and choppy video, for instance — presents more challenges for me to think into, through and beyond the storytelling I've become known for.
Rebecca Walker is a frequent contributor to The Root.