The artist Kara Walker lends new insight into the antebellum world depicted in her work.
Gary Tinterow: Hello, my name is Gary Tinterow. I'm curator in charge of the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art here at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I'm happy to welcome you, and to introduce you, to Kara Walker, who's here in the exhibition with me, as we're setting up—the final day—the exhibition Kara Walker at the Met: After the Deluge. About a year ago, we invited Kara Walker to do a project at the Met and we offered her this space. The room that we're in is about thirty feet by forty-five feet, and we gave her carte blanche to make new work, to select work that she had previously made, to go through the Metropolitan Museum's collection, choose works that she thought were of interest to her—works ranging from the sixteenth century, Hieronymus Bosch, to Winslow Homer, to works made in the last couple of years by Kara Walker herself.
So Kara, what has it been like to go through the Met's collection and how has that shaped your idea for the exhibition?
Kara Walker: I loved the opportunity and having the freedom to pick and choose. But I actually was overwhelmed initially with the possibilities. Why will I mine the Museum? Am I mining the Museum simply to give contexts to my work or am I mining the Museum to create a narrative similar to the way I try and create a narrative within my work?
Gary Tinterow: But in the end, it all came together after Hurricane Katrina, and something you call the "story of muck."
Kara Walker: It took awhile, but around August–September of last year, 2005, when the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast of the United States and we saw images on TV of strife and struggle and a kind of wetness, and there were stories that were being told in real time that had a basis in physical reality and some kind of a hook in a mythical place—I was very interested in trying to create an artwork, or create a situation, where that mythical space could be explored a little bit more fully. My biggest worry, after many weeks of hearing the stories surrounding the aftermath of the hurricane—I was very worried about the way it solidified, the way the story solidified—into comprehensible narrative of structural failure—
Gary Tinterow: It seems like you're always fighting a conclusion in your work. You always insist on ambiguity and multiple endings to the stories that you invite us to consider in your works.
Kara Walker: People assume—and I think I know this in myself—there's a great deal of security to be had in a happy ending. And the search for happy endings, particularly with regard to how the media treated Hurricane Rita afterwards, and sort of went out of their way to be involved and sort of actively portray activist reporters rescuing puppies, and just to rescue us from the scenes of failure, to keep us from being reminded of what disaster really feels like.
Gary Tinterow: We don't actually have in this exhibition any depictions of New Orleans or of hurricanes, but we have lots of natural disasters being shown here.
Kara Walker: Natural disasters, and I think they're sort of internal disasters, physical disasters. But it's not all about that. I think that it's kind of important to set that Katrina factor—this mucky factor—in place and then deviate. Because some of the exhibition has to do with the kind of shifting terrain that New Orleans sort of occupies in the popular mind, particularly with regard to race, that things are never clearly black or white or solid, or gender and reality, fantasy and reality, all kind of come under some kind of a play, not really scrutiny but they're played with.
Gary Tinterow: Well, to me, one of the juxtapositions that you've set up in the exhibition that's fascinating is the comparison of a painting probably from the 1880s by Winslow Homer, showing what must be freed slaves in a backyard, dressing up for carnival, and a sort of ill-defined family group getting together to comment on one of their members dressing up as a harlequin. And then you've juxtaposed that with a work by yourself that shows very much the stereotypes of minstrel players, banjo players. You don't know if they're actual blacks or Al Jolson, you know, pretending he's black, with what looks like a dead man lurking in the shadows.
Kara Walker: This image that you're describing, it might be an untitled piece. It's a pencil drawing, and the two performers there, one with his foot stuck through the banjo, were directly taken out of a small minstrel poster, just sort of copied and drawn, and this third figure, this melting, murky figure, sort of female and blackish and not really real at all because it's based on so many false attributes, is the tar, if you will, that they're stuck in.
Gary Tinterow: Sort of a Br'er Rabbit analogy there, metaphor.
Kara Walker: And also kind of a minstrel metaphor. That piece by Homer, The Gulf Stream, was actually very important, one of the important first pieces I knew I wanted to put in the show. It's a very striking image, just formally. But I think there's a strange, disconcerting nonchalance. The boat is adrift and it's tilted, and the sea is stormy, and the mast is broken, and he's surrounded by sharks, and he has this kind of, there's a kind of clarity in some way, which is not too different from the kind of clarity of seeing a black woman holding her children and crying out. There is a kind of an iconography, I think, in the representation of stoicism in the face of disaster that became, in some ways, one of the attempted metaphors in the telling of Katrina. I don't know that it was a successful attempt.
Gary Tinterow: Well, one thing that's interesting that one can do at the Metropolitan Museum, which is—can't be done in other museums in either New York or this country—is to draw on these rich collections. And Kara Walker has gone through Netherlandish prints of the seventeenth century showing the breaking of a dyke that was horrendous an event in the seventeenth century as perhaps Katrina was in our own; a copy after John Singleton Copley's famous Watson and the Shark that shows a young white boy attacked by a shark in the Havana harbor, 1749; juxtaposed with Winslow Homer's Gulf Stream, in which you see a black man adrift, looking at an ominous water spout in the Caribbean, with sharks circling him. And I think this is one of the most effective parts of the exhibition, is bringing disparate material from silhouettes to oil paintings to Renaissance pictures to prints by Poussin. And in every instance, I, as a curator, have learned something from looking at these works that are very familiar to me in the Museum's collection but in a completely new light, the light that Kara has shined on these works. Because her own pictures are so startling and new and disruptive and unsettling, that we see paintings that we've walked by hundreds of times in a completely different light. And for me, this is the great beauty of this exhibition.
Narrator: Kara Walker at the Met: After the Deluge, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art until July 30, 2006.
This has been an Antenna Audio production.