FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Her work has been called revolting and shameless. Critics have even suggested boycotting her shows, but Kara Walker's stunning, controversial, black-and-white silhouettes have earned her international acclaim and a MacArthur genius grant. The 39-year-old artist has shown her work at some of America's finest art museums.
Walker's art takes a deep dive into issues around slavery, sex and liberation. Even her most refined pieces have a deep rawness that begs for explanation.
Kara Walker just opened a huge show at the University of California Los Angeles. It's not too far from our NPR West studios, so I headed over to talk with the artist herself, but before we go on, a quick warning. This piece has topics that will offend some listeners.
So we're here in Los Angeles' Hammer Museum, and I'm facing an enormous, semi-circular painting by Kara Walker, and luckily we have her with us today to talk about her award-winning work. How are you doing?
Ms. KARA WALKER (Artist): I'm pretty well, thanks.
CHIDEYA: So the exhibit is called "My Compliment, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My love. What does that mean?
Ms. WALKER: Well, the title actually comes from this piece on the wall, it's called "Letter from a Black Girl." It's a 50-foot-long wall, and there are a number of figures marching along this wall doing various things.
They are cut from black paper and adhere to the wall with kind of wax adhesive, and starting on the left if you wanted to read it narratively, is a hoop-skirted belle and soldier, hands entwined, leaning toward one another in a kiss. Underneath the hoop skirt of the woman, a pair of legs jutting out.
What I was interested in doing was kind of exploring the train of romantic, racist kind of stereotypes and archetypes.
CHIDEYA: Well, you have plenty of taboos. You have a figure that I certainly read as black, a girl with pigtails, sucking the privates of what looks like a white boy. You have a male figure, which I read as black, with an enormous penis inflated to the size of a helium balloon.
A lot of your work has sexual, scatological themes. And it strikes me as angry. Do you think of it as angry?
Ms. WALKER: I think of it as giddy. I think using the silhouette is kind of a device that maybe is a little bit cagey.
CHIDEYA: And the silhouette has a long history as this, you know, courtly form of women wearing these cameos, as well as the silhouette used as a form of portraiture, and it comes out of this history where you're not going to see the sexual and the scatological.
I mean, how did you decide to combine this giddiness and anger with this really almost prissy format?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WALKER: Well, that's just who I am.
CHIDEYA: So I want you lead us around in a second and see some of your work because you have worked in a lot of formats, but I want to bring up something, which is that some African-Americans, including some artists, seem really discomfited by your work, and there's definitely a lot going on.
In 1999, the artist Betye Saar was in a PBS documentary series, and she said: I felt the work of Kara Walker was sort of revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves, particularly women and children, and that it was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment. That's like a big knife out for you.
Ms. WALKER: Yeah.
CHIDEYA: What do you think? I mean, what did you think when you first heard that or saw it on the television?
I think the first thing that's kind of striking to me is that I'm not making work about reality. I'm not. I'm making work about images, you know. 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.
CHIDEYA: Well speaking of where we are, can we just walk around with you a little bit and maybe talk about a little bit more of your work?
(Soundbite of footsteps)
CHIDEYA: So there's so much in this exhibit. It's really magnificent and scary, and this is one of the pieces that you're known for, "Darkytown Rebellion." More silhouettes, but also you've got I guess a backdrop of projections. What's this piece about?
Ms. WALKER: Well, I started - this is maybe the second or third projection piece that I made, and I started working with these overhead projectors to kind of set a stage, I guess, for the silhouettes by flipping through sort of an historical book of America - it's called "American Primitives," American primitive painting, unschooled artists from the 19th century.
And there was a very strange, black-and-white reproduction of a painting that this is a copy of, you know, these stereotypical sort of black figures marching through it. But I liked the layout of it because it was so quirky as a landscape, so I just did a quick study of the landscape, and I took all the people out, and after that, I thought well, where did they go.
And the piece was called "Darkytown." So I thought I would just add some of my - some of the figures, a jockey and some kind of a rebel, and then it spirals downhill from there to unidentifiable figures.
CHIDEYA: Well, I want to bring in Gary Garrels. He's the curator here, and brought your work in. So let's go track him down.
Ms. WALKER: All right.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
CHIDEYA: We found you, Gary, right outside of the exhibit hall. How are you doing?
Mr. GARY GARRELS (Curator, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles): I'm good.
CHIDEYA: So why'd you bring this exhibit here, and what's your relationship?
Ms. WALKER: Well, I was one of the lucky people to have seen Kara's show in New York and the Drawing Center in 1994 and was blown away by it, as were so many people, and followed the work and had the good fortune to have Kara come out and do a show with me when I was at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1997.
So when the Walker Art Center decided to organize this retrospective, Ed Feldman(ph), the director, and I both thought this has to come to the Hammer Museum. This is the only place on the West Coast it's being shown. Our first Hammer project, which is our series of exhibitions with young artists, usually at a pretty early point in their career, Kara initiated that series here in 1999. So there's a lot of history here.
CHIDEYA: When you think about the footprint that this could leave in time and how people might look at this, you know, 150 years from now, roughly as many years as we are from the Antebellum Era, what do you think they'll think of this?
Ms. WALKER: You know, I think the most that I could hope for is that 150 years from now, some kind of maybe shy, amateur historian is going through the archives somewhere and stumbles across an image that I've made and that image resonates, because the most fascinating thing for me is to look at older art, you know, to look at say a Goya, and think oh, there's just something so intensely human. There's something so kind of charged and terrifying about this experience of being alive. That's actually, you know, what - where the whole art-making impulse comes from for me. So I would hope for that.
CHIDEYA: Kara, Gary, thanks so much.
Mr. GARRELS: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Kara Walker's new exhibition, "My Compliment, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love" opens this week at the Hammer Museum at the University of California Los Angeles, and Garry Garrels is the Hammer's chief curator and the museum's deputy director of exhibitions and public programs.
And there's more about Kara Walker, including some of her silhouettes and a clip from her puppet films, at our blog, nprnewsandviews.org.
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