Cut to the Quick
This essay, written by Susan H. Edwards, PhD, is provided courtesy of the Frist Art Museum, Nashville.
Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?
— Natasha Trethewey
Kara Walker (b. 1969) is one of the leading visual artists of her generation, in part because of her prodigious talent in several mediums, but especially because she upends propriety with images of exaggerated stereotypes that address slavery, racism,
exploitation, gender, and physical and sexual abuse. Walker is best known for her groundbreaking large-scale tableaux silhouettes, made using the cut-paper craft popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her hard-hitting, unorthodox depictions
of unspeakable subjects expose the raw flesh of generational wounds that have never healed.1
Kara Walker: Cut to the Quick, from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation includes works, created in various mediums between 1994 and 2019, that offer a broad overview of the artist’s career. The words of poet and exhibition
co-curator Ciona Rouse included here coalesce genre within genre, expanding our understanding of the visual, verbal, oral, and performative complexity of Walker’s art.
Encountering a room-sized installation by Walker, one is struck by the drama of stark contrasts—black on white, and the reverse. Her art is less a study in opposites and more a panoply of ambiguity.
>>© Kara Walker, The Emancipation Approximation (Scene #25), edition 7/20, 1999–2000. Screenprint, 44 x 34 in. Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, 2001.20y
The presentation of all twenty-seven black, white, and gray prints in the Emancipation Approximation series (1999–2000) offers a rare opportunity to see the artist’s riff on “emancipation,” or all that did not come with the promise of freedom.
Walker alludes to the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, in which the Olympic god Zeus takes the form of a swan to rape the human Leda—a subject tackled by artists from Leonardo da Vinci and Antonio da Correggio to Cy Twombly, as well as poets William
Butler Yeats, Lucille Clifton, and Sylvia Plath. Sexual dominance, trickery, and subjugation reinforce dependency and intimidation while thwarting independence, courage, and ownership of one’s own body.
Throughout her career, Walker has been an avid student of history and literature, including novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936)—the former vilifying slavery and
the latter fueling the myth of the Lost Cause. She acknowledges that “I am not a historian. I’m an unreliable narrator.”2 She states:
I’m not making work about reality; I’m making work about images. I’m making work about fictions that have been handed down to me, and I’m interested in those fictions because I’m an artist, and any sort of attempt at getting at the truth of a thing, you
kind of have to wade through these levels of fictions, and that’s where the work is coming from.3
>> © Kara Walker, Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated): Exodus of Confederates from Atlanta, edition 21/35, 2005. Offset lithography and screenprint, 39 x 53 in. Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, 2005.339l
Between 1861 and 1865, Harper’s Weekly reported on Civil War battles and political developments, largely in support of Lincoln and the federal government. In 1894, the weekly published Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War by Alfred
H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden, with one thousand illustrations of battlefields, maps, plans, and likenesses of military figures. In 2005, Walker superimposed her signature silhouettes over large-scale prints from the pictorial history, annotating
Harper’s contemporaneous account, which had been intentionally inoffensive to its Southern white readership. Walker’s flat, opaque forms insist that the African American point of view was conspicuously absent. Their deep negative space arrests the
gaze and beckons the viewer into a black hole of spiraling emotions about the unreliability of history. Who is telling the story? Whose history is included, and whose is omitted? Who is validated, and who is obliterated?4
The Testimony suite (2005), five scenes from the video Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Fortune (2004), reveals the hand of the artist and the power of rudimentary production values. Walker’s physical presence among
the shadow puppet reinforces an intentionality as potent as that of her precursors in social commentary: Honoré Daumier, Francisco Goya, Georg Grosz, and Käthe Kollwitz. Walker’s debt to the early twentieth-century animated films of Lotte Reiniger,
long present in her silhouettes, is foregrounded in her photogravures and video art.
Mining the National Archives for War Department microfilm, Walker discovered the extensive records kept by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, which informed the subject matter of her 2009 video Six Miles from Springfield on the Franklin
Road.5 The bureau operated from 1865 until 1872, to assist those doing family and community research on the period following the Civil War and during Reconstruction. Precise records were maintained on disgraceful acts. Walker’s video,
part history and part fiction, begins with a Black family engaged in daily chores, but soon the narrative switches to violence. Walker does not conceal her presence, but rather claims authorship by manipulating the figures and exposing the behind-the-scenes
mechanics of production. Following the murder of the male protagonist, the burning of the family home is communicated through red and orange pieces of Mylar that flicker like flames to the chilling sound of sizzling bacon or fatback. This audio effect
may be a reference to the meager diet of some rural Americans, or an allusion to branding and other forms of torture using fire and heat. A rape inflicts the final degradation.
>> © Kara Walker, Testimony, edition 12/14, 2005. Photogravure, 22 3/8 x 31 in. Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, 2010.113b
In 2010, Walker created a fictionalized account of the Middle Passage in An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters. Combining aquatint, sugar lift, spitbite, and drypoint etching techniques, Walker created the series of six prints to address the
brutality of the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy, as well as the magical thinking of captives dreaming of flying or swimming back to Africa and freedom. In this body of work, the artist who claims to have “an uneasy relationship with my own
imagination” takes poetic license with scale and proportion to weave a heartbreakingly plausible yet improbable two-dimensional and monochromatic tale.6
Set in 1920s Charleston, South Carolina, to music by George Gershwin, with a libretto by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, the opera Porgy and Bess tells the story of two Black protagonists—Bess, the beautiful mistress of a man who manipulates
her with drugs and money, and Porgy, a disabled beggar who loves her. The tragedy was criticized almost from the beginning for its characterization of the lifestyle of African Americans, as well as its use of their dialect, as imagined by white authors.
When Alicia Hall Moran was cast as Bess in a 2011 production, she invited Walker to rehearsals. Walker made sketches as she watched “to understand the music and to allow myself to get caught up in the fantasy of theater.” The producers requested that
she not use the drawings for salable work.7
>> © Kara Walker, An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters: no world, edition 19/30, 2010. Etching with aquatint, sugar lift, spitbite, and drypoint, 27 x 39 in. Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, 2011.114a
Subsequently, Walker was approached by Arion Press to illustrate their publication of the opera’s lyrics. Bound by her promise, Walker created sixteen original lithographs for the book (2013), plus four lithographs for a companion portfolio, employing
a loose, open style in contrast to her customary hard-edged images.8 The smudges, rubbings, and loose, broad strokes that lithography is well suited to reproducing are visually appropriate for the tender love story; like her drawings and
early paintings the prints contain a handmade quality and intimacy that confirm the visceral presence of the artist.9 In a statement for the book, Walker says of the characters, “They’ve become archetypes of another no less grand drama,
that of: ‘American Negroes’ drawn up by white authors, and retooled by individual actors, amid charges of racism, and counter charges of high-art on stage and screen, in the face of social and political upheaval, over generations.”10
In 2017, Kara Walker was invited to participate in Prospect.4, the New Orleans citywide triennial of contemporary art. She selected Algiers Point for a site-specific installation of a calliope mounted on a wagon. The organ-like musical instrument was
reminiscent of nineteenth-century riverboats, as well as the steam engine, the cotton gin, and other inventions of the Industrial Revolution era. Walker commissioned American jazz pianist Jason Moran to compose and perform songs and sounds inspired
by African American anthems of protest and celebration. The title Katastwóf Karavan, taken from the Haitian Creole word for “catastrophe,” refers to the life of subjugation, violence, and humiliation African captives endured before and after
passing through the holding center located at Algiers Point. All four sides of the wagon and the maquette (small model) for the calliope in the exhibition feature scenes of the old South in Walker’s silhouette style, laser cut in stainless steel rather
than paper. The reliefs recall the masterful shadowing and Afrocentric storytelling of visual artist Aaron Douglas that address social issues around race and segregation from the years of the Harlem Renaissance through Jim Crow and the civil rights
movement of the 1960s.
>> © Kara Walker, The Katastwóf Karavan (maquette), edition 29/30, 2017. Painted laser-cut stainless steel, 9 1/8 x 14 5/8 x 5 1/2 in. Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, 2017.486
The most recent work in the exhibition is Fons Americanus, a bronze replica of Walker’s now-demolished installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.11 The original monument, over forty feet tall, was loosely based on the Victoria Memorial
at Buckingham Palace, which had been erected in the early twentieth century in honor of the long-reigning queen; her attributes of constancy, courage, motherhood, justice, and truth; and implicitly the power, wealth, reach, and influence of England
at the height of its imperialist domination.
Walker describes Fons Americanus as “a piece about oceans and seas traversed fatally. It is an allegory of the Black Atlantic and the global waters which disastrously connect Africa to America, Europe and economic prosperity.”12 With
water as the foundational motif, Walker devised an interconnected flow of figures and scenes satirizing the pride of empire, condemning the violence and complicity of governments and private enterprise in constructing the transatlantic slave trade
and perpetuating its legacies. The hand of the artist smears and drags across recognizable figures and scenes—an Afro-Caribbean Venus, seafarers, a tree with a hangman’s noose, the scales of justice—to articulate and obfuscate our messy reality. With
a touch reminiscent of Auguste Rodin or Medardo Rosso, Walker provides haptic surfaces with spontaneity and unfettered élan.
>> © Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, edition 9/30, 2019. Bronze, 20 x 16 x 16 in. Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, 2020.111
The monument movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries placed memorials to the Civil War and various military figures throughout the United States, with over 1,500 in the South. Although many have been removed recently, over three
hundred remain in Georgia alone, the state where Kara Walker lived with her family from age thirteen until she left for graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1991.13 Her poignant take on monuments predates the current
wave of revisionist thinking about them, supporting the argument that her art continues to ask and answer the question, Can provoking discomfort, disgust, tension, and anxiety explode stereo-types and set us on a more equitable and just path?
In every visual medium, Walker continues to mine history, literature, mythology, art, culture, and personal experience for evidence of trauma and underlying, unrelenting, and unresolved pain. With each project, she unearths human complacency and complicity
with no pity, patience, or sentimentality. She provokes self-examination and holds society accountable.
Her messages resound with added currency and urgency in the context of international reckoning with race. Sometimes it is hard to look carefully at Walker’s art because of how deeply she cuts and how she exposes collective culpability and shame. Still,
we cannot retreat. She never does.
Susan H. Edwards, PhD
Frist Art Museum former executive director and CEO