The shadowy world (usually room-sized) of Kara Elizabeth Walker (b. 1960) gently beguiles the viewer into believing that they are looking at historical tableaux, only to shock them as they draw nearer. The perfect scene of plantation life in the antebellum South, however, comes apart upon closer scrutiny, for the shadow figures defecate, suck, and ejaculate, as they revel in all kinds of erotic, sadistic, and masochistic acts.
Walker’s shadow figures are far removed from the quaint 18th century ‘cheap alternative’ to the portrait miniature, which emerged in France and the rest of Europe, where skilled specialist artists could cut a high-quality bust portrait. She contemporised and brings in a strong critique of the plantation culture without losing her sharp sense of wit and humor.
Walker, an American contemporary painter, silhouette artist, print-maker, installation artist, and a filmmaker, is known for slowly pulling the rug from under the viewer, exposing them to a world where she brings them into close contact with the issues of race, gender, sexuality, violence and identity.
Currently living in New York, Walker has created the present annual Hyundai Commission, a site specific work for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London, which will be open to the public from October 2, 2019 to April 5, 2020.
Frances Morris, Director, Tate Modern, believes that Walker is perfect for this project because, “…her work addresses history and identity with a powerful directness, but also with great understanding, nuance and wit. Seeing her respond to the industrial scale of the Turbine Hall - and the wider context of London and British history is a hugely exciting proposition.”.
Walker’s installations are usually arranged in continuous scenes that reproduce the 360-degree space of pre-cinematic spectacles such as the panorama and the diorama and confront the spectator unflinchingly with figures endowed with a sense of absolute presence. Known to bring in the grotesque, the carnal and the ecstatic aspects of the human body into play, Walker breaches the boundaries of ‘decency’ and what is acceptable. On one hand there is bourgeois portraiture, and on the other, she creates a shadow play charged with the racially over-determined silhouette of the social sciences.
In the summer of 2014 at the Williamsburg Domino Sugar factory, Walker displayed a massive sculpture titled A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, which drew crowds as big as 10,000 people to visually ‘consume’ and to Instagram the sculpture. It is reported that Walker would secretly peddle her bicycle to the factory and watch the crowds ‘watching her sculpture’.
The artist was keen to see how people were reacting to her work and its obvious sexual overtones. The sphinx that stood at 35 feet by 75 feet, was a complete subversion of the cool and distant Egyptian figure, rather it was an African mammy with a headscarf, bare breasts, and bent over so that part of her vulva peeps out between large buttocks. The sculpture has been dubbed ‘a chimera of unvarnished American desires’. It is surrounded or ‘protected’ by an infantry of ‘black-boy’ figurines carrying agricultural bounty.
Once again the figures are referential to popular gift-shop souvenirs from Africa, but Walker renders them almost life-sized, bringing a certain iconicity and presence to their form. Both the black-boy figurines and the …Sugar Baby (made of actual sugar, water and resin) were built from Walker’s sketches by a team of nearly 20 fabricators, the 3-D sculpting and milling firm Digital Atelier, and Sculpture House Casting. It has the distinction of being the largest single piece of public art ever erected in New York City. To quote Nato Thompson of Creative Time, “Kara immediately understood what a different form public art can be.”
Underpinning its overt rhetoric of black female sexuality is Walker’s critique of the treatment meted out to coloured and immigrant factory workers of the sugar factory who had been underpaid, maimed or killed in accidents with no life or medical insurance. Walker writes in her artist statement, “[It is] … a homage to the unpaid and overworked artisans who have refined our sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchens of the New World on the occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” The factory was closed in 2004, and has been under renovation till 2017. It is now gentrified into offices, residential areas and parkland. Walker’s sculptural installation is her attempt to make sure that its dark history has not been erased.
It will be exciting to see how Walker interprets the industrial space of the Turbine Hall. We can be sure that it will certainly revolutionise the way people look at public spaces and contemporary art’s role in creating a dialogue between everyday people.