The Eyes of the Storm: Kara Walker on Hurricanes, Heroes and Villains

The Eyes of the Storm: Kara Walker on Hurricanes, Heroes and Villains

From the April 2006 issue of MODERN PAINTERS.

By David D'Arcy

In The Gulf Stream, painted by Winslow Homer">Winslow Homer in 1899, a black man in a boat faces unruly seas. But it isnt enough that hes fighting the elements single-handedly, in weather thats poised to overtake his small craft; sharks sidle up eagerly.

Nearby, in Dressing for the Carnival (1877), also by Homer, a black man prepares a clown costume for Mardi Gras. The mood is ominous, not joyous. Is Homer hinting that even in the best of times, misfortune is either on the horizon or just behind it?

"Theres something precarious about the fate of the black man here," says Kara Walker, who has selected these works from the collection of New Yorks Metropolitan Museum of Art, for an exhibition, titled "Kara Walker at the Met: After the Deluge," in which they are juxtaposed with a selection of the 37-year-olds own productions.

Most recognizable among the latter are Walkers signature black-and-white silhouettes. They line the walls of her studio, which is disarmingly modest for an artist who has been heaped with praise and commissions, 10 floors above the wheeled clothing racks of New Yorks Garment District.

Props and sets from her puppet show/films are piled into corners. Theres a familiar faux-nostalgic whimsy to her graceful master-slave pairings, even to images of Southern cavaliers beating or coupling with clownish black victims, with the plantation aplomb that Walkers work always seems to be lampooning. But theres also a fatalism in the elegant cut-outs. Dead black caricatures are still dead, and still black.

"After the Deluge," is inspired by last summers Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the mostly poor and black population of New Orleans. What struck Walker were news images of "black corporeality," hurricane victims reduced to bodies and nothing more. She likened them to African slaves piled onto ships for the Middle Passage, the Atlantic crossing to America.

"I was seeing images that were all too familiar," she says, looking at the floor. "It was black people in a state of life-or-death desperation, and everything corporeal was coming to the surfacewater, excrement, sewage. It was a re-inscription of all the stereotypes about the black body."

"There was one iconic image," Walker recalls, "a woman feeding a dog as a body just floated by in the swollen river." Another disturbing image, no less indelible for the fact that it could not be verified, came from a radio reporta young black girl who had been raped and stabbed, and then left to decay in a flooded lavatory in the New Orleans Superdome stadium, which had spiraled into a Boschian hell of excrement, bodies and slime, as officials watched from a safe distance.

During Katrinas worst days last Sept., Walker was in Los Angeles, preparing for a show at Red Cat, a gallery in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. "I got to thinking about what role an artist should play in responding to and shaping the way such a story is told," she recalls.

Excerpted from the April 2006 issue of MODERN PAINTERS.

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Images Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.