Kara Walker’s work offers a candid examination of power through an exploration of racial myths and stereotypes, articulating the suffering from within American history that continues to reverberate today. This online presentation of the Berlin exhibition features enhanced content not included in the gallery.
Inspired by Walker’s research into contemporary white supremacist movements and gun culture, the monumental wall work THE SOVEREIGN CITIZENS SESQUICENTENNIAL CIVIL WAR CELEBRATION (2013) depicts an imaginary battle re-enactment scene from Civil War anniversary celebrations that took place in America in 2011. Inspired by the prevalent culture in some Southern states that actively forges the myth of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” (a pseudo-historical ideology advocating the idea that the Confederates’ cause was not only justified but also heroic), and the associated mindset of white supremacy, this cut-paper silhouette wall work, at approximately twenty meters in length and five in height, overwhelms the viewer.
Presenting a panoramic vista of clichés of America’s Deep South, THE SOVEREIGN CITIZENS SESQUICENTENNIAL CIVIL WAR CELEBRATION (2013) was first presented at Camden Arts Centre in 2013. The exhibition—We at the Camden Arts Centre are Exceedingly Proud to present an Exhibition of Capable Artworks by the Notable Hand of the Celebrated American, Kara Elizabeth Walker, Negress—was the artist’s first solo exhibition in London.
The monumental wall work exposes the darker sides of human behavior, by moving from celebration into Civil War-style racial violence. An acerbic nod to the nostalgia still felt by some for the antebellum, colonialist days, it is exemplary of the artist’s candidly dark comedy. Kara Walker’s immense wall works are included in a number of institutional collections.
As Walker’s signature work with cut-paper silhouettes developed, film also came to play a central role in her artistic practice. Similarly to how black bodies have been manipulated throughout history, Walker’s films address the manipulation of the object, using cut-paper puppets whose movements are controlled by the artist.
The two National Archives Microfilms from 2009 emerged from the artists research into the U.S. National Archives Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. The Bureau was established in 1865 to aid former slaves in the transition to freedom following the American Civil War. The short-lived Bureau kept precise and descriptive records of the senseless violence inflicted on former slaves during the Reconstruction period. Walker’s films reimagine two of the incidents recorded in the Bureau’s transcripts. For both films, the artist worked with musicians Jason and Alicia Moran to create the soundtracks.
National Archives Microfilm M999 Roll 34: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: Six Miles from Springfield on the Franklin Road (2009) is based on interviews with a family who were not only attacked but were also victims of arson. Set in Springfield, a small town just north of Nashville, Tennessee, a seemingly tranquil and idyllic scene of an African-American family quickly descends into a nightmarish vision of murder, rape and arson.
National Archives Microfilm M999 Roll 34: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: Lucy of Pulaski (2009) is based on a race riot that occurred in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1868. The transcript from this event is a fairly elaborate text, offering a thorough report of the events that led up to the riot. Through the film, Walker was seeking to find the voice of the narrator, who described a female figure whose supposedly loose morals instigated the riots. Yet further investigation raised questions about whether this figure was even involved in the riots.
Artifacts such as shot lists, handwritten notes, cut-and-pasted lines of text, sketches and cut-paper puppets shed light on Walker’s process as she conceives of and composes her films.
Kara Walker’s use of silhouette animation and shadow puppetry developed from an interest in the rich cultural history of the form, including the work of Lotte Reiniger, whose animated silhouette films—such as Cinderella (1922) and The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)—preceded those of Walt Disney.
From Walker’s debut films in black and white—Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions (2004) and 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005)—to her incorporation of color in later films such as her two National Archives Microfilms, the viewer always detects the presence of an unseen force controlling the action, imbuing her work with poignancy and menace.