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Artist’s works focus on legacy of slavery in American life

Susan Saccoccia | 10/27/2017, 6 a.m.
Black and white dominate the palette of Kara Walker, an artist whose room-size murals, sculptures, videos and works on paper ...
Murals by Kara Walker are displayed as part of the show “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. Is Compelled to Present the Most Astounding and Important Painting Show of the Fall Art Show Viewing Season!” at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. gallery in New York. Susan Saccoccia

Black and white dominate the palette of Kara Walker, an artist whose room-size murals, sculptures, videos and works on paper focus on the still-corrosive legacy of slavery in American life.

On view in major museums worldwide are her wall-size murals peopled by silhouetted figures of the Old South, with black and white characters intertwined in violent, subservient and obscene acts. In 2014, Walker’s 35-foot high, monumental mammy-sphinx carved out of sugar entitled, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” turned her into a celebrity well beyond the art world.

Fame is neither slowing nor toning Walker down, as a recent show of new works at her gallery Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, makes clear. The show’s 22 murals and smaller works bristled with torrid energy and Walker’s characteristic force, style and humor.

All the works were created this summer, except for the show’s 201-word title, which she composed in May, wryly predicting “the finest selection of artworks by an African-American living woman artist this side of the Mississippi.”

In a more straightforward artist’s statement, Walker voices weariness at being singled out, writing, “I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model,’” and asking, “How many ways can a person say racism is the real bread and butter of our American mythology… .”

Walker, 47, is not the first black female artist to investigate race, gender, sexuality and violence in America, but she is in the vanguard of a new generation whose distinguished lineage includes Loïs Mailou Jones, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Adrian Piper and Lorraine O’Grady.

Three years after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design (MFA ’94), Walker became, at age 28, one of the youngest recipients of a MacArthur “genius” grant. Now living and working in New York City, she holds the Tepper Chair in the Visual Arts at Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts.

Drawing from historic archives, pop culture, folklore and her imagination, Walker uses traditional, manual techniques such as hand-cut silhouettes, puppetry and drawing to create surreal images that recast the familiar and make what is forgotten or denied visible — often sensationally so.

Walker will launch another large-scale public work at the fourth Prospect New Orleans contemporary art triennial, “Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp,” which runs from Nov. 18 through Feb. 25 and coincides with the city’s 300th birthday. Visitors will travel by ferry to Algiers Point, once a holding site for newly arrived slaves, where Walker’s wagon-mounted, steam-powered riverboat calliope will pipe a composition written for the installation by a fellow MacArthur recipient, jazz pianist Jason Moran.

The recent show in New York presented drawings on paper and linen created with ink, blade, glue and oil stick that varied in scale from 12-by-10-foot murals to notebook-size works. Like most of her works, they are populated by characters and tell stories that evoke historic periods or conjure desolate post-apocalyptic landscapes.

In her silhouettes, these characters are archetypes—the southern belle, the white landowner, the slave children with pigtails and overalls, the mamma and the field hand. In the more intimate art of drawing, these characters become individuals.