Taken from the November issue of Dazed & Confused:
Kara Walker has been weaving elaborate, disturbing and often taboo narratives since the early 90s, sometimes using well-known stories such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn and Gone with the Wind to locate the iconography behind their depictions of blackness and femininity. Her current Camden Arts Centre exhibition is an accumulation of her collected stories, formed from the coagulated myths and archetypes that pepper contemporary culture. In her video Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale, Walker presents “interracial puppets lost in disaster, circling around towards lynching and fantasy dangers, or suspicions of rape, and accusations of rape, or the possibility of miscegenation in America’s south.” Her work owes much to her fascination with the itinerant 19th-century hucksters who would roll up to towns and proclaim their prowess as cut-out portrait-makers or bring with them cycloramas and panoramas. In her now immediately recognisable style, large-scale black-and-white paper cut-outs freeze-frame half-remembered moments, splicing them somewhere between fiction and truth.
Dazed Digital: Your work harks back to the tropes and trappings of a recent past. Do you intentionally use fiction as a distancing device?
Kara Walker: I’m fascinated with the stories that we tell. Real histories become fantasies and fairy tales, morality tales and fables. There’s something interesting and funny and perverse about the way fairytale sometimes passes for history, for truth. There’s this permeable membrane between experience and terror and violence and its retelling and misinterpretations of its retelling. So the ‘missed-mark’ quality is interesting because that’s as close as I feel I can get as an artist. I don’t think that my work is very moralistic – at least, I try to avoid that. I grew up with that sermonising tendency and I don’t think visual work operates like that.
My work is playing out the played out-ness of race. It’s a hot mess of quaint representations of a bygone era that won’t go away
Dazed Digital: How did you settle on your aesthetic, with The silhouettes and projections?
Kara Walker: I came to the cut-outs in a really roundabout way. I encountered silhouette representations in my research as a grad student, but it didn’t click in as anything meaningful until I realised I was trying to understand a position that is formed from the outside by all these external forces: colonialism and slavery and the pseudo-scientific idea of race. All of these things were happening at the foundations of America – and in the early 90s, when I was searching for identity, there was no actual ‘me’, just a blank space that was shaped by all these external forces. So it was that blank space that actually led me to a silhouette.
Dazed Digital: What is your relationship to the American south?
Kara Walker: I moved to Atlanta when I was 13 so I’m not a southerner, but all that stuff comes from finding myself in this place that’s held on to an identity based on a war that happened 150 years ago and the ensuing violence. I used this idea of migration from the rural south to urban centres as a metaphor for my own transformation. Those drawings (Dust Jackets from the Niggerati) were illustrative of unwritten stories or found stories from newspaper articles that tell of this difficult, violent transition. The idea also stemmed from the election of Barack Obama, when the Tea Party and these reactionaries came out of the woodwork and got so much media exposure here. It was like re-drawing very specific kinds of caricatures in order to maintain a status quo.
Dazed Digital: How does that relate to contemporary political narratives?
Kara Walker: It’s not new, that’s the thing that’s shocking. I was looking at the drawings I’m talking about, at newspaper articles from the late 19th and early 20th century from the Atlanta area, and the Atlanta Constitution had a bad reputation for being like the Fox News of its day. It was race-hating and hyping up race-hatred. There was a really interesting thing I printed off from the archives that was typical of the time. It was a manhunt for a black man accused of accosting a white man in his home and supposedly violating his wife and all of this stuff, right? The article was describing where the angry mob will be next and advertising where you should go on this manhunt. It was describing the scenario, but also hypothesising what would happen next. I had it on the wall, the language was so over-the-top, like, ‘He will surely be lynched, his body will surely be riddled with bullets and his body burned at the stake.’ It was like this predictor of things to come. It was biased reporting.
Dazed Digital: Why are these past narratives still relevant?
Kara Walker: I ask myself that a lot, actually. I feel that the work is searching to pin things down to their origins, stripping away the contemporary clothing that might be used to disguise things and make them comfortable. When I was in London last the Trayvon Martin case, or the George Zimmerman verdict, came in – this shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Florida – and I think the drawings and the work that I’ve been doing in between have all been around the idea of ‘race fatigue’: being overwhelmed and fed up of the constant repetition of the theme of race hatred and violence and the absorption of that hatred within a community. And then the reaction and the tired, played-out theme of protest and the desire for something beyond a conversation of race that isn’t racist. What I’m doing right now is playing out the played out-ness of the theme. It’s a hot mess of quaint representations of a bygone era that won’t go away, that won’t be gone.
I think the drawings and the work that I’ve been doing in between have all been around the idea of ‘race fatigue’: being overwhelmed and fed up of the constant repetition of the theme of race hatred and violence and the absorption of that hatred within a community
Dazed Digital: Terms like ‘negress’ and ‘niggerati’ jump out from your titles. what’s your interest in such taboo language?
Kara Walker: I am performing this role of the artist and this role of the ‘negress’ coming into a white-box institution. It’s kind of a self-appointed role: the self-designated negress.
Dazed Digital: A lot of your work is about power structures and turning master-slave relationships on their heads.
Kara Walker: I’m trying to play with multiple flips, not just role-reversal but the understanding of feeling. In fact I am sort of toeing the line doing this work, which is not just an institutional critique of the proverbial white-box institution but also of an idea and a trap that I stepped into quite willingly when I started out: that I was going to make black art in the most black arty kind of way. There was a manifesto in the late 60s / early 70s, and it basically laid out what ‘black art’ was, and that it should embrace black history and black culture. There were all these rules – I was shocked when I found it in a book that it even existed, that it would demarcate these artists. So I took that on sardonically, and the irony now is that I’m kind of trapped in that space of playing with figures and figuration. The only thing that upends that a little bit is that we’re still wrestling with these stereotypical figures, these ridiculous cartoonish lampooning gestures and violence. That’s still taboo.
Dazed Digital: Do you encounter discrimination in your position as a successful artist who is both black and female?
Kara Walker: I haven’t really had a show of my work in Atlanta since 1995, and it’s been very difficult to approach museums in the south. There’s still a lot of raw nerves in many parts of the country – or rather the work still hits a particular set of nerves that have nothing to do with contemporary art or fables or talking about things. It’s very real and present.
Dazed Digital: Where does the darkness lie in your work?
Kara Walker: (laughs) Not just a physical darkness... I guess in some ways the work is predicated on the assumption that no good will come of it: that through all these lofty pretensions towards goodwill and explaining history is a violent psychosexual catastrophe that underlies proper history, (laughs) and I’m laughing at that.
Until January 5, Camden Arts Centre, London