Reality and fiction meet on an epic scale in the new Hiunday Commission at Tate Modern in London, a 13-meter-high working fountain by American artist Kara Walker titled Fons Americanus. Inspired by the Victoria Memorial located in front of Buckingham Palace, the Walker Fountain turns a symbol of the British Empire inside out.
Via a complex allegorical scheme, Fons Americanus explores the origins of the Black Diaspora and the transatlantic slave trade, a significant gesture in the wake of the recent heated debate on monuments that celebrate racist or colonial histories.
On the occasion of Walker’s installation at Tate Modern, we propose an interview with the artist that took place in 2011 during the exhibition “Kara Walker- A Negress of Noteworthy Talent” at the Merz Foundation in Turin, in which the artist speaks of the racial, personal and cultural tensions that fuel her vision.
Kara Walker was born in Stockton, California, in 1969. At thirteen-year-old she moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where the deep racial divisions marked her adolescence. Walker owes her success, starting from the second half of the 1990s, to the brilliant reinterpretation of a medium of expression that became popular in the eighteenth century, the silhouette cut out.
Her installations, now in museums and collections all over the world, draw from historical reality and imagination, and tell stories of the appalling racial abuses in the southern states before and during the American Secession War.
Her hellish visions draw on literary, historical and popular sources such as the cyclorama and the ‘minstrel’ shows, parodies in which whites disguised themselves as blacks. In Walker’s merciless visions, role reversals and grotesque interracial mating describe a fierce colonial world, where slaves and masters are bound by a double bond of cruelty and shame.
Many of your silhouette works seem structured like dreams, in which everything happens simultaneously and there is no real focal point or coherent narrative …
Kara Walker: My stories stem from my African American subconscious rather than from dreams in a strict sense. What’s inside me, of course, is also the outcome of internalizing certain cultural constructs. My work oscillates between social criticism and psyche, it operates at the intersection point between the internal and external world.
In fact, the world you create appears almost fluid, populated by hybrid identities, in which shadows blend with each other.
Kara Walker : I believe that the fluid forms populating my landscapes are related to the extreme ambivalence of the identity of the colonized subject that I represent. Then there is another type of ambivalence, which affects me closely: asserting one’s independence as an African American woman always depends on being defined as a woman and as a black woman. It is a paradox, a trap from which there’s no escape.
“Kara Walker- A Negress of Noteworthy Talent” opens with a work based on a novel by Mark Twain. Could you tell me about your relationship with American literature?
Kara Walker: Much of my work takes cue by American literature and popular culture, cinema, for example, and cyclorama. I have always been fascinated by the literary representation of racial relations in the South. My first installation was inspired by Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. Above all, I was interested in how in the romantic novel black characters were built as a “support system” around the central figure of the white American heroine. I wanted to try rereading myself in these characters.
You have defined your silhouette installations as a form of History Painting.
Kara Walker: In a sense. I was inspired by a particular moment, the one in which the tradition of historical painting leaves the realm of high art, and expands in a spatial sense to cross over into the field of popular entertainment with the cyclorama. All of this long before the birth cinema. I find the cyclorama particularly interesting because it reveals the relevance of this narrative genre, its capability to regenerate itself.
As for art in more recent times, which artists would you say have inspired you? Years ago, you declared to be in love with Andy Warhol …
Kara Walker: I can’t speak of Warhol’s direct influence on my work. I have always appreciated his simple philosophy and also a certain combination of impudence and innocence. I believe he was caught by a mechanism that he had set in motion without knowing where it would take him. I have a small personal list of the five white men in my life, and only one is an artist! Mark Twain, Andy Warhol, Charles Schulz and Jim Henson (creator of the Muppets). I admire them for the simple, honest and straightforward way of telling what they wanted to say. The artist Adrian Piper has been very important for my work, certainly more than Warhol. She taught me that the relationship between viewer and artwork cannot be reassuring when it comes to interracial issues. Of my generation, I have perhaps more affinity with artists that work with language, Jenny Holzer for example.
Language is an important part of your work starting from your very long titles.
Kara Walker: The long titles are functional to introducing my colonial landscapes, while texts within my work is intentionally more obscure, as they are the immediate expression of my thoughts.
A kind of automatic writing?
Kara Walker: Not really, because it’s never solipsistic, it always tells a story.
In some of your installations titles you mention a “Tawny Negress”, one of your narrative alter egos, which is inspired by a character created by Thomas Dixon Junior in a racist novel of the early 1900’s. Why did you choose this character?
Kara Walker: It was more an emotional than a rational choice, dictated by the experiences of my childhood and adolescence. Searching for some controversial, incredibly racist literature, I came across this stereotype of black femininity, a marginal but really powerful character. It was not even described in detail, she was faceless, only ‘Red negress’, as if only this was enough to define her as a true concentrate of malice and cunning, the concubine born to deceive the honest American white male. I intuitively decided that it was that’s the character I was looking for.
What is your relationship with feminism?
Kara Walker: I think that I belong to a generation that is called post-feminist. I was partly influenced by African American feminist writers who contested feminism as a unitary and global movement in the 1970s and 1980s. In the United States at that time there was a division within the movement. Feminists of African American descent and of other colonial origins claimed their fundamental contribution in the women’s liberation movements, which was never properly recognized. I believe that my work has been influenced by this division between the idea of participation in the movement and action. Actually, I don’t have a precise answer to this question.
In addition to the term post-feminism, the term post-Black was coined, to indicate the overcoming of the stereotype of the black artist. What is your opinion in this respect?
Kara Walker: I think the idea of post-Black is one of those things that no one believes, even if the term has been around for ten years!
In the 1990s your work sparked a heated debate in the African American community, which found your work offensive. Do you think the problem was that you disappointed their expectations?
Kara Walker: Yes, partially. Violating expectations, being able to ferret out viewers from their “comfort zone” is precisely what I respect in other artists’ work! I think I ignited the controversy because I wanted to ‘interpret’ the rules established by the African American artistic community. In the seventies, perhaps not many people know it, an African American Art Manifesto was drawn up. Subverting this manifesto has become a staple of my criticism. Some of the rules laid down in the manifesto were: “always produce works which speaks of the history and struggle of the African American people, produce for an African American public”, etc. Well, I have complied with some of these rules, but totally in my own way. There’s a captivating aesthetic quality in my silhouettes which is almost a way to make myself forgiven for the terrible things I have to say!
Regarding what you just said, a few years ago you claimed that reliving the colonial past is like creating a monster that devours you. Are there times when you can’t stand the monster anymore?
Kara Walker: I would say that this is precisely the point of all my work, getting to the point where I can’t take it anymore. I believe that here, as in my other solo shows, it is clear that I push myself to the maximum level of pain tolerance. My drawings, which have a more introspective character, are also a means of slowing down, taking hold of the situation, stopping to reflect on my metaphors.
Do you think there is a difference in the way your work is perceived in Europe compared to the United States?
Kara Walker: It is not easy for me to say. What I can tell you, is that traveling in Europe to set up my exhibitions, I happened to feel like a player of Blues who’s trying to make his music understood, taking it around different cities. I really love the Blues which is a very sad, desperate and confused music, held together only by rhythm. When it becomes only a show and an object of consumption, unfortunately, Blues loses its character. Around Europe it seemed to me that the aspect of despair within my work was not evident. Perhaps mine is a discourse on colonialism that speaks to an American rather than a European sensibility. But then again, it’s not easy for me to make a judgment.
In conclusion of this interview I’d like to return for a moment to dreams…. In a drawing exhibited here at Fondazione Mertz, a slave in chains says: “You can’t even dream without running the risk of being caught and locked up” and the master, off the field, replies: “Boy, it’s because you act on my dreams and ruin my sleep”. With your stories about collective nightmares, do you think you’re disturbing somebody’s sleep?
Kara Walker: Most of all mine! Let’s say that my expressions tend to surprise me and disturb others …