A Few Notes On Seeing Kara Walker Speak

KW1Kara Walker was wonderful. So glad I went. Certainly the art must stand apart from the artist, but given all the flap about her earlier cut paper work, it made such a difference to hear from the woman behind it all. And then to move on to hear about the Domino Sugar Factory project.

She was informal, conversational, witty, incredibly well/broadly read, brilliant in ways that make sparks fly as you listen to her. Profoundly rooted in her work and not just willing, but able, in ways not all visual artists necessarily are, to talk about her process in all its determination, uncertainty, exhilaration, intention, association. In part, what she called her ” chutzpah, bravado, and ego,” in accepting the Domino project, which she first refused, with no idea of what she would do.

She talked from a few note cards rather than giving a lecture, thank goodness. Complete with pauses, chuckles at herself, more than one ref. to the act of “riffing” as part of the drawing and writing that leads to formulating ideas, and a noble throw away line that “People don’t want to see art that reminds them how fucked-up they are” although that doesn’t stop her from producing it.

Turns out the Sphinx was her first work of sculpture — ever. She did incredible research on sugar, molasses, blacks and sugar production, popular imagery about blacks and sugar. Also sugar as a European delicacy, compared to say, honey, which was around much longer and how sugar had a different cultural/ social meaning, being a kind of primal “sweet salt.”

Huge team of craftspeople to construct the exhibition. She showed a few minutes of a couple of videos, one that looked at audience response. The one of workers creating the sphinx had a monumental fast-time feel that was startling — like watching Egyptians work with blocks of ancient stone. And the stories of trying to cast the standing boys in sugar… And saying the abandoned factory was a kind of cathedral.

Video of the work being dismantled, the sphinx “had a kind of generosity about her,” in terms of reverent and irreverent audience response.

Controversy seemed in the past, she has moved on to thinking about many other projects, but she talked about how she came to that work initially, partly as trying to break out of the grand painting tradition. The cut paper images were a popular 19th-cent. form and allowed racial and social commentary. One question touched on controversy and how she decided to not be nice. She said, laughing, “I never stopped trying to be nice. I just realized I wasn’t.”

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