Kara Walker is, hands down, one of America’s most well-regarded living artists. She has shown her cut-paper silhouettes and lurid, projected scenes at every major Arts Institution in America—MoMA, the Whitney, the Walker Art Center, SFMoMA, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the name, but a few—and a slew of major arts museums internationally. In 1997 Walker was one of the youngest people ever to be honored with a MacArthur Genius Grant and in 2007, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. All this, and Walker only just turned 40.
But for her many accolades, Walker’s relationship to the African-American community remains tense.
The reason is that Walker’s art focuses—almost exclusively—on America’s complex history of racial and sexual violence. Her famously narrative titles often reference racist slurs such as “Negress,” “picaninny” and “mulatto.” Her tableaus often feature African-American characters in all manner of humiliating positions.
In this BOMB Magazine interview from 2007, Walker speaks candidly about her artistic process and how she has coped with the backlash from black artists such as Howardena Pindel, whose book Kara Walker No / Kara Walker Yes / Kara Walker ? was published this year. You can read the full interview at BOMB Magazine.
Matthea Harvey: Let’s talk about hybrids. In your work, you have white swans with human heads.
Kara Walker: The swans with the black heads came very organically. I was thinking about objects of beauty and destruction. I first used them in a piece meant to be a comment on my ownership of stereotypical black forms. This conversation was happening as to who has the right to use stereotypical images of blacks. Do they reinforce cultural values that set African Americans back generations, or are they fair-game images that preexist you and me?
MH: What about your more mythical cutouts of children with tails or a figure who is half ship, half woman?
KW: They are all over the place, aren’t they? They are like little walking fables. I’m externalizing what can’t be expressed verbally. I’m thinking of the little girl holding her tail, but each figure is unreal or hybrid to begin with, so to call this one a shadow or pickaninny or Topsy…is she a real character? Is she an externalization of a part of me? There are so many fallacies, so many myths about the absence of humanity in women, in blacks, that I don’t even think it’s abnormal that she has a tail.
MH: You work in many different mediums, including paper cutouts, gouache mixed with coffee, brass rubbings, overhead projectors…. Lately you have been making films in which you manipulate cutout figures behind a scrim, with shadow and cut-paper sets. These are like narrative animations of your silhouettes. Have you found that each medium leads you in different directions? What are the frustrations and/or delights of each one?
KW: I’ve done two films and a video, and the frustrations there are the lack of touch and immediacy. On the other hand, because I’ve made mainly puppet films, there’s a great deal of another sort of touch. We’re making puppets and manipulating them, and they develop personalities. It’s a little goofy, but I’m completely surprised by the performance aspect. I can leave the studio at the end of the day and feel like something happened, something that’s counter to what’s happening out in the world, and it has developed a language and a universe. With the film I made last year, at the end of every day I felt as if I had just made a painting. (laughter) Like, “This is what I want a painting to do!” It’s activated all the way through, not just on the surface. The story happens over time; it unfolds. Very often I picture things in my head all at once. In the film it’s happening on both sides of the canvas.
MH: In the film, you emphasize the artificiality of the puppet play. The sticks you use to manipulate the puppets are visible, and you also allow the viewers to see your hands and face, and those of the other puppeteers, semi-visible behind the scrim. What was that decision about?
KW: I didn’t want to pretend that it was an illusion. When you’re working with a screen, you’re wearing a mask and putting on a performance. There’s an acknowledgement of the presence of the subject, and then there’s the story, and the subject and the story are always moving back and forth between reality and fiction. I did two live puppet-show performances—something I will never do again—but I discovered that me with a screen or a mask is a whole different personality. I noticed it, I felt it, and I didn’t really like myself afterward. Leading up to getting behind the scrim, I was scared silly, an increasingly erratic nervous wreck. Afterward, I was like Joe Cool. I was in L.A., too, which didn’t help. It was a little creepy. I felt that somehow I had to live in the world that the mask created.
MH: I know I’ve had moments where I’ve written a poem that horrifies me. I think, “Oh my God, I didn’t mean to have someone having sex with a pig in my poem.” But then I feel like I have to live with it. (laughter)
KW: Yeah, narratives are forever.
MH: You have talked about the different reactions viewers have when they come to your work. I’ve experienced all sorts of emotions myself looking at it. What emotions do you have when you’re creating the pieces? Do you blush or laugh or cry?
KW: Yeah, that’s the hard part: I can’t make this work if I don’t feel something along those lines. I’ve definitely laughed or cackled out of absolute surprise at myself, and I have probably cried enough tears to flood the city. Shame is, I think, the most interesting state because it’s so transgressive, so pervasive. It can occupy all your other, more familiar states: happiness, anger, rage, fear…. It’s interesting to put that out on the table, to elicit feelings of shame from others—“Come and join me in my shame!” It is a little peculiar.
Read the full interview from BOMB Magazine Issue 100, Summer 2007.
Used with permission. All rights reserved. © Bomb Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors.
Photo credit: Untitled, 1996, cut paper, watercolor, and graphite on canvas, 69 1/2×66”. All images courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.