Pea, ball, bounce – artist Kara Walker – Interview
When Kara Walker’s art first went public the response was instantaneous. There was love, and plenty of criticism, too. But there was also proof that art can be political, funny, and beautiful all at once. For a start, her astonishing silhouettes deliver a biting satirical comment on racist representations. It’s art that’s cut to heighten perceptions, and Walker – who is currently the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant – is definitely cut like an artist who’s going to make waves
My first encounter with the work of artist Kara Walker was when her father, Atlanta-based painter Larry Walker, visited my childhood home and told a story about her habit of picking peas up from the plate balanced on her high chair and exclaiming “Pea . . . ball . . . bounce!” before throwing them at the floor. Let’s Just say I’ve known my cousin a long time. And while other artists her age are still essentially tossing legumes from their baby seats, Kara, twenty-eight, has whizzed her stroller through the American art world in the past couple of years, grabbing a spot at the most recent Whitney Biennial (where her parents, embarrassingly, handed out pins to all her relatives that said “Kara’s aunt,” “Kara’s husband,” and so on) and a 1997 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. In the meantime, her silhouettes depicting scenes of sex and violence in an antebellum South both historical and hysterical generated controversy from all sides (for instance, some critics accused her of merely reinforcing black stereotypes) and sold faster than she could slice them. In the middle of this, Walker somehow found time to get married to jewelry designer Klaus Burgel and push around someone else’s stroller – that of her one-year-old daughter Octavia. From October 22 to November 28, she’ll have her first New York showing at Wooster Gardens – of silhouettes, drawings, and installations – in the two years since she was elected the art world’s New Negro.
JAMES HANNAHAM: Are you sick of silhouettes?
KARA WALKER: Sort of. I’m actually cutting some right now because after all this talk about negative black stereotyping in my work I thought I would take on positive black stereotyping. You know, images that are uplifting to the point of absurdity? That kind of bizarre Africanism that populates people’s homes.
JH: Right, right. The author Tim Murphy gave me a birthday card with a painting of this very regal-looking but clumsily rendered African queen on it. The caption says the artist’s work is meant to “release the hidden cultural beauty of the Afro-American.” As if it was a given that that beauty was hidden.
KW: Exactly. I did this painting that was loosely inspired by a relatively famous picture of the poet Phyllis Wheatley. The central figure is a terse black woman rolling her eyes back in her head as she contemplates whatever poets contemplate, with her hand under her chin. Over her right shoulder is a sort of cartoonish pickaninny in chains, and she’s angry and pointing accusingly at the woman. Over her left shoulder is a doughy white would-be master with an impressive dick. It’s called “Portrait of the Artist Wrestling With Her Demons.”
JH: Now what inspires an image like that?
KW: OK. I’ll try to make some kind of general statement. But it gets so sappy and simple when I have to break it down like that. You know, sometimes I’ve lived my life completely oblivious to racism in its various forms, in the sense where not only was it a surprise to me to find it coming from others, but I’ve even found myself living out the expectations of whites to the horror of blacks.
JH: Is this before high school, when you lived in California?
KW: No. Probably more in Georgia, where sometimes simply hanging around with whites was bad enough to incite people. I think I sort of went through a realization, after spending a lot of time hanging around with people who had absolutely no respect for me as a human being and worshiping them. Or, you know, getting involved in relationships with men, which is a much more intense dynamic. There are times when you’re friends with somebody or you’re having a relationship, and you’re not thinking about race for a brief moment. Then suddenly the entire history of the whole United States of America or the American South or post-Reconstruction comes crashing down on you and you say to yourself, “Hmm, this reminds me of something. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s vaguely familiar.”
JH: Wasn’t there some incident in high school where somebody put a note on your car?
KW: At some point in Atlanta, I was with my then boyfriend, John, in the park, thinking we were alone, but when we got back to the car there was a flyer from the Ku Klux Klan, spelling out for him all the evils of black women, describing what sort of peril he was in, and identifying stereotypes of disease and moral degradation. That was an awakening for naive me. So I guess I needed a way to question how these types of issues have been represented in art previously.
JH: Is that when you started dealing with Issues of race in your work?
KW: At the beginning of the story, I really avoided making any statement about race in the work, and I think I did that because of the environment I was in, and what other black people at the Atlanta College of Art, where I got my B.A., were doing. There was an essentialist rhetoric in their work that I thought wasn’t right for me because for some strange reason I didn’t take it seriously enough. That approach was too righteous to question itself.
JH: Right. You mean the sort of art that is so bound up in its politics that if you criticize it for being bad art, people think you’re against what It stands for. And it also seems a little outdated, especially for the trickier battles we face now.
KW: So during my senior year, when I did this drawing of an African-looking woman surrounded by white structures, my professors were just thrilled. They were like, “My God, this is the first time that an African anything has appeared in your work.” Then I was off to Rhode Island School of Design, where my thinking eventually came out in these silhouettes. Whereas before I used to avoid the race issue by just kind of mashing up different colors –
JH: Yeah, you were doing those “colored people” as I used to call them. All different colors, flying through the air . . .
KW: Oh, awful, awful! Oh, those were horrible. But I do have some people flying through the air now.
JH: It Was that “family show” you did in Atlanta, including a few of your dad’s paintings and your moro’s batiks!
KW: [laughing] Oh! My God. That was awful.
JH: Your daddy’s gonna see this and beat you.
KW: I’m not laughing at it, per se.
JH: Right, you’re laughing with it, I know, honey. Well, we’ve gotten to the point at which you decided to deal with race.
KW: Yes, when I was at the Rhode Island School of Design. These silhouettes were a lucky –
JH: . . . break?
KW: – break. They worked perfectly well.
JH: Yet it doesn’t seem to me that there’s that much precedent for a black artist to deal with these issues in an ironic fashion. Maybe Adrian Piper, and to a certain extent Basquiat. . . .
KW: Robert Colescott! He’s been doing it forever and getting in trouble. I think he’s part of the bad painting school, the West Coast thing. In the ’70s he did take-offs on famous paintings including “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware,” and my favorite, “Eat Dem Taters.”
JH: Which is?
KW: “The Potato Eaters!”
JH: Oh God! [laughs] Does it bother you that your work is in the hands of rich, powerful, and often white people? Do you have some sort of control over what happens to your pieces once they’re out of your hands?
KW: I don’t have much control anymore. In fact, I’m losing control lately and I’m trying to get it back. Initially I thought this situation was just the perfect sort of irony, the perfect “what goes around comes around” situation. I mean, of course my work’s going to go to a rich, white collector and I’m going to be, you know, the typical black artist – getting corrupted by the man, then becoming dependent. But really the only thing that bothers me is when collectors are so proud of owning something that they show it indiscriminately.
JH: There’s a brilliant scene at the end of this German movie The Nasty Girl (1989) where a woman who’s been uncovering all the Nazi secrets in her hometown, getting her house firebombed in the process, is finally given an award for her efforts and rejects it. She’s like, “You’re only doing this to shut me up!” Do you ever feel that way about being awarded the MacArthur grant?
KW: [laughs] Yeah, kind of. That crossed my mind a couple of times. Like, Well, now what? OK, I’m twenty-eight, now there’s nothing left to aspire to anymore. It’s actually been like that since the ball started rolling, when the first New York show generated all these phone calls and I thought, This is strange.
JH: That was at The Drawing Center in 1994.
KW: Yes. I guess as soon as that happened people were suddenly very interested in my work. And now they’re trying to get rid of me.
JH: You’ve generated plenty of ill will, too.
KW: Well, there was an issue of The International Review of African American Art basically dedicated to trashing me, and Betye Saar got together about two hundred protest letters about me. She urged people to encourage the MacArthur Foundation to rescind the award and told people to protest the racist images.
JH: Did you ever speak to her personally?
KW: Not personally. I wrote her a letter, and sent her a little picture.
JH: You did? Putting out fire with gasoline, eh?
KW: Actually it wasn’t one of mine, it was a little something that was a burden to me. It was given to me by someone who . . . well, I’d rather not say. The painting is just this innocuous little thing, but it just weighed on my conscience so heavily. Because it always conjured up a memory. And so I decided to give it to Betye Saar because she was occupying another weight on my soul. [laughs] That’s what I did, I just exchanged one for the other.
JH: What did you say in the note?
KW: I guess I started off mentioning that I was a little dismayed that she never actually contacted me. Seeing as she had so much to say about my work it seemed strange that she never took the time to talk to me about it personally, just pulled it out in a very political way, saying things like “I don’t have anything against Kara Walker, I just think she’s young and foolish.”
JH: Can a stereotypical caricature created by a black person be racist?
KW: I guess it matters how you define racist. I think we always play with that notion, black folk – the Richard Pryors of the world. It’s hard to say because, on the one hand, you can’t borrow racist stereotypes that are already out there and then recast them or make up new ones. On the other hand, you can’t really survive without satire, can you?
JH: When the whole ebonics debate was raging, I wrote this parody of a language-instruction booklet called “Ebonics for Travelers” that made fun of the idea by suggesting that black and white America were actually different countries. Since some people thought I was white because of the name, I got some irate phone calls. People think racism is a “black and white” issue. But it’s far more complex.
KW: It seems like I had to actually reinvent or make up my own racist situations so I would know how to deal with them as black people in the past did. In order to have a real connection with my history, I had to be somebody’s slave. But I was in control: That’s the difference.
JH: I hear you’ve been painting with coffee. Is there some similar ulterior motive in that decision?
JH: How did it happen? Were you just drinking coffee?
KW: I ran across this poem listing all these delicious associations with the black body with all these lines about “the ginger-colored Negroes,” et cetera. I think it was a Harlem Renaissance poet. So at one point I was writing about all of these desires to be consumed, paired with the intoxicating power of badness. Everyone loves chocolate but no one wants to eat too much of it. Everyone loves coffee but you know what happens if you drink too much.
JH: To what extent is shock value important to you?
KW: When I started to work, of course, I was in a mostly lily-white school. It never really occurred to me that the work was shocking. [laughs] I guess it’s probably not so much the lily-white thing, just the art school, the whole context. Everyone is trying to push something, so you get caught up in that mode of working.
JH: When was it first pointed out to you?
KW: I guess people would be sort of reserved and say, “Well, you know, If I were somebody else this might shock me.” Often I’ll be surprised at even what I could think, self-righteous goody-two-shoes that I am.
JH: It’s always been kind of interesting that people call your work explicit, even though there’s a level of abstraction at the same time. It suggests just enough so you can fill in the rest of it with your own dirty mind.
KW: Right, which was the thrilling part about discovering silhouette in the first place. Because I was doing that anyway, looking at just ordinary Colonial portraits of people and thinking, Ohhh, they just want to be black. I had been looking at a European take on Africans and African-Americans in the last couple of centuries –
JH: Yeah? So how’s your husband?
JH: Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But I did have a question about that. What do you say to people who try to call you out as an Oreo for having married a German man?
KW: People are too polite to actually do that these days. They think it. And I know they think it, but it always gets more complicated. It’s such a shame. Years ago, I had a friend who was looking at some of my work, and just as an aside commented to me, “I don’t think white people have souls.” Meanwhile, I’m thinking about this great new guy I just started dating.
JH: Have you and Uncle Larry ever had a serious heart-to-heart about making art?
KW: Not really. You know the way the Walkers talk. Actually, here’s what’s happened. There was this article I told you about earlier in The International Review of African American Art and they invited a response. l got a note that was given to my dad by somebody else in Atlanta, so I wouldn’t have even seen the magazine if they hadn’t slipped this note to him, but it said, “So could you please ask your daughter if she’d like to respond?” Anyway, my dad also wrote a response. Not only did he defend my right to use the imagery that I want to use, he said he considered it a right that he and his generation had fought to give me. It was pretty dam nice of him. We haven’t heard anything from that magazine since.
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