Kara Walker

03.27.13

View of “Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!,” 2013, Art Institute of Chicago.


For her latest exhibition, Kara Walker draws upon two white supremacist texts from the twentieth century, building a breadth of work that centers pointedly on the present moment. The show is titled after a line in Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams of My Father, and presents five sweeping graphite drawings and forty mixed-media works that image racist fantasies, providing an indictment of the way these drive contemporary politics and culture. The show also marks a return to her seminal cut paper silhouettes, which polarized the art world when she debuted them at the Drawing Center in 1994 and have been peripheral to her practice for a number of years. “Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through August 11, 2013.

JUST A FEW MONTHS AGO, one of my drawings was veiled at the Newark Public Library in New Jersey. The work depicted a lynching as well as a scene of sexual violence and was part of a series of forty-four drawings I exhibited in 2011 at Sikkema Jenkins in New York in 2011—these were on loan to the library by a private collector. One of the so-called more explicit sections of this drawing provoked a strong reaction from the staff, which led to its eventual censorship and caused the complicated imagery that defines my practice to become a topic of conversation again. Controversy has always been a constant to my work, but in this particular instance it was not my silhouettes that sparked the reaction but my drawings, which are far more about the present than the cutouts. The silhouettes literally turn away from the here and now—they’ve always contained this kind of manic cruelty, but the job of the silhouette is to feign a very neutral front—it is duplicitous in this way.

My drawings erupted as a kind of backhand slap to my cutout work. The point of the silhouettes was to locate racism, blackness, and, in particular, my draftsmanship in an anachronistic nonspace: a place that would allow the work to exist as a fully realized second-class citizen poking at the margins of mechanical modern art practices. This gesture quickly became a useful shortcut for others to illustrate dissertations on history, politics, and feminism. Taking that social cue—that my work serves as good graphics for historians—I decided to illustrate texts. Making sweeping graphite gestures is all about being in the moment, but I hope to retain that question of what moment are we? Or, what moment is this? Is it all moments?

As we approached Election Day this past year, I became absorbed in an unsavory paranoia about mass violence in general and the expedience with which racist fantasies provide leverage to messy actions. I wanted to understand how narrative unfolds in the production of dangerous mythologies. I began reading two white supremacist texts, which my Chicago show is based upon. The first was The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, written in 1905 by Thomas Dixon Jr., which was also the premise for the 1915 film Birth of the Nation. I then looked at William Luther Pierce’s 1978 The Turner Diaries, a book the FBI described as “the bible of the racist right.” Narratively, the two works couldn’t be more different. The Clansman, written just after the close of the nineteenth century, is a reverent call for a romantic era in which everyone knew their caste. It’s a melodrama soaked in perfume and truthiness; the entire narrative pushes the reader forward toward the tantalizing allure of an impending rape, so that fury and vengeance will unleash history from the bonds of law.

By contrast, The Turner Diaries is a dystopian novel depicting a bloody overthrow of the United States government by Aryan militants. The novel begins in 2099: The nation is run by Jews and blacks, civilian firearms have been outlawed, and the book depicts white men and, to a lesser extent, young blonde women as tragically and grotesquely disenfranchised, which prompts a barbaric overthrow and ethnic cleansing. The narrative is a convoluted jumble of munitions instruction, futuristic diary entries, and end-of-days scenarios. The effect is jarring for its relentless lack of irony and reckless dependence on the hapless other to serve as foil, enemy, disguise, and cleaning crew for the protagonists’ escalating bloodshed—grubby anarchy that misidentifies itself as pure order.

So what can be said about this work for Chicago? The exhibition is titled “Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!,” which was Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey’s activist call that Barack Obama references using an ironic voice in his book Dreams from My Father. In order to deal with these texts visually, I have had to delve unapologetically into language. To do this, I have brought together drawings and silhouettes plus a number of watercolors. I am thinking of it as a first chapter—laying out the terrain needed to work with these obscure fictional accounts. The watercolors function as a kind of anchor to the novels; some quote Pierce and extrapolate images from the text. The large graphite drawings pose as grand history paintings and add thoughts about racial codependence, black separatism, and Civil War reenactment into the mix. Looking at what I have created, I see the aesthetics of Thomas Dixon, whose prose is all about the nobility of aggression. In future pieces, I’ll aim toward an overwrought multipart piece where I can burrow further into the devastating and artless conclusions each novel proposes, and take a look at the problems that develop as an “author” inserting herself into a text whose only purpose is to destroy her.

— As told to Allese Thomson