Kara Walker is among the most complex and prolific American artists of her generation. She has gained international recognition for her room size tableaux depicting historical narratives haunted by sexuality, violence, and subjugation, for which she has used the genteel 18th-century art of cut paper silhouettes. The Smithsonian American Art Museum will present the complete set of her print series, Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) for the first time since it was acquired in 2008.
In this group of 15 works, Walker appropriated select illustrations from Harper's Pictorial History of the Cicil War - a 2-volume anthology from 1866 - enlarging and overlaying them with dark stenciled figures that depict disturbing imagery, including racial stereotypes and graphic acts of violence. According to the artist, the Civil War prints "are the landscapes that I imagine exist in the back of my somewhat more austere pieces."
In this exhibition, Walker's works are presented alongside a selection of the original Harper's prints on which they are based, also drawn from SAAM's collection. Shown together, the two bodies of work shed light on Walker's artistic process and her approach to history as an always fraught, always contested narrative. In Walker;s hands, the 19th-century depictions fo battle, death, and retreat become staging grounds for racialized violence and trauma. The ghostly scenes recast the positions of African Americans in history and create a provocative dialogue between the past and the present.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website