My passion for art has brought me to the Modern and many museums like it many times, but my passion for artists keeps me coming back as well. I greatly admire individuals who make the decision to become professional artists. I love how artists believe in their work no matter what. I've always thought that they step out of the box and do something many of us may not have the courage to do. Would you agree? Well, I think it definitely took courage to step out of the box and create Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. After viewing this exhibit, I was intrigued to find out more about Kara Walker, the artist.
Philippe Vergne, the man who knows all things Kara, recently gave a tour of the exhibit. Philippe Vergne is the Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and was recently named the new Director of the Dia Art Foundation. Vergne also organized the Walker exhibition here at the Modern. I was in attendance for his tour, and as I walked with the crowd through the galleries, Philippe Vergne introduced me to Kara Walker, the artist.
As we stood in the first gallery with Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, the curator began talking about the artist's background and her art process. Walker, whose father was also an artist, lived in Stockton, California with her family before moving to Stone Mountain, Georgia. She was very shocked to see the remnants of segregation in Georgia, because she was used to living integrated in California. Vergne also told the crowd that he worked very closely with Walker in her studio. He spoke of how she was very disciplined in training her hand to cut 100 silhouettes in an hour. He referred to her art process as "painting with blades". Vergne stated that Walker is putting herself in the history of painting because this history has left out the African-American female artist. I also learned that Walker is not afraid to put subjects that are taboo into her artwork and that her artwork is autobiographical.
The crowd moved on with Philippe Vergne into the gallery where The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven,1995 was displayed on a curved wall. I found out that the artist wants to draw the viewer in and then punch them in the face. Vergne revealed the artist's alter ego. There is the Good Kara and Bad Kara, but the artist is working on herself from the inside out. Directly across from The End of Uncle Tom... was Endless Conundrum, An African Anonymous Adventuress, 2001, and Vergne helped us to see that Kara Walker is a student of art history and the history of modernity. Her work was influenced by modern artists including Picasso and Matisse who were influenced by African art. Walker's early drawings also show how she was influenced by other artists.
As the tour continued, I found out more about Kara Walker, the artist. Vergne talked about her more as we looked at some of the smaller pieces in the exhibit. He told us how Walker dressed up in a hoop skirt, braided her hair, and jumped up in the air before creating Cut, 1998. Cut, 1998 shows us her struggle with herself, her culture, and society. In Letter from a Black Girl, 1998 the voice of the writer is Walker, and she relates different subjects in the letter to different pieces in the exhibit. Vergne stated that he asked Walker who the letter was addressed to and she told him "to take a guess".
The tour began to come to an end as we reached the back of the galleries where a collection of Walker's drawings titled Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?, 1997 waited for us. Vergne began to talk about the background of this series of drawings. I found out that many older African-American artists were against her work. Walker received the MacArthur Foundation grant in 1997 at the age of 27 which made her the youngest recipient of this grant, but many African-American artists did not agree with that decision as well. These artists did not like her use of stereotypes and didn't want to see this part of African-American culture in art history. Walker was playing with fire.
The older artists thought that she was misrepresenting the culture and that a digression of the African-American culture was occurring as a result of her art. The argument over Walker's work got very heated and controversial. Vergne stated that the artists organized a Harvard Symposium in 1997 and invited Walker to have a panel discussion with them about her work. Walker declined the invitation and responded with this series of drawings. The drawings are a journal and response to the controversy. Vergne stated that Walker told the artists, "There is nothing I can address that I can't answer in my work."
She knew that art cannot please everyone. She knew that she wasn't the first to do it. She refused to give into the usual expectations. Kara Walker, the artist, still has passion, and she reveals it to us through her artwork.
What do you think about Kara Walker, the artist?
***Thanks to Grace, our Photography Intern, for all of the great photos of the Kara Walker exhibit.