Less than a month before she opened her latest exhibition, Kara Walker issued a artist statement that was so perplexing, the New York Times reached out to her assistant provide some explanation. The title of her show, after all, began, “Collectors of Fine Art will Flock to see the latest Kara Walker offerings, and what is she offering but the Finest Selection of artworks by an African-American Living Woman Artist this side of the Mississippi,” and yes, even continues on much further from there: “Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media. Parents will cover the eyes of innocent children … The Final President of the United States will visibly wince. Empires will fall, although which ones, only time will tell.”
This statement was Walker's announcement that she's officially fed up with being the poster child of "black artists," which she’s been pegged at least since 2014, when she took 40 tons of sugar, water, and resin and transformed them into the largest piece of public art New York’s ever seen: a giant sphinx that regularly attracted over 10,000 visitors to the former Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn in 2014. That crowd included, at times, Walker herself, who’d marvel at how a work centered on the mistreatment of factory workers and the harm of black female racial stereotypes had become such a crowd-pleaser, Instagram sensation, and backdrop for clueless selfie-takers.
The discrepancy between her intention with the work and the its reception was so pronounced that Walker commissioned a film crew to capture the crowd, and then screened the footage at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.—the same gallery that spent months of this year asking for an artist statement for her show that opened earlier this September. The end result definitely provided explanation for the delay: “I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point. But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model,’” Walker wrote, though still taking care to call out "random groups of white (male) supremacist goons.” After "roll[ing] her eyes, fold[ing] her arms, and wait[ing], she asks: 'How many ways can a person say racism is the real bread and butter of our American mythology, and in how many ways will the racists among our countrymen act out their Turner Diaries race war fantasy combination Nazi Germany and Antebellum South?'”
There are many more words where those came from, all of which, of course, attracted the internet’s attention—and especially so when, a day before the exhibition’s opening, the critic Jerry Saltz published an ecstatic review calling the show “the best art made about this country in this century,” her “barker banter” aside. Thanks to a new tact of using giant sheets of paper, her works are now packed with a riot of figures incorporating her signature silhouettes and charcoals—so many that they in effect document America’s unavoidably racial history, from slave children trapped atop a Confederate flag-topped tree to Klansmen to swastikas to quite a few depictions of Donald Trump. (Or at least his severed head.)
And so, she may not have intended to, but with her latest, Walker has again become an Instagram sensation—this time, it appears, for the right reasons, when even LeBron James is feuding with the president over his nonsensical, blatantly discriminatory, and potentially lethal rhetoric and policies. Take a look at some of the best Instagrams from the show, which this time around feature nary a selfie, here.
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