Kara Walker, the Brave One

During the course of this interview, Kara Walker refers to herself as a “firewoman.” It’s an apt metaphor, and a welcome antidote to the 40-year-old artist’s blistering silhouettes that depict antebellum stereotypes of savagery, violence, and uncontrolled, deviant libido. On paper, her broad-stroke mythologies are overrun with infanticide and rape. But in person, Walker dispels her reputation as an “angry black artist” — a label that has followed her throughout her illustrious career — with humor and modesty. When, for example, she showed up to participate in this month’s The Black List: Volume Two, an HBO documentary directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Walker responded: “Oh, right! I’m contributing to something! Shit!”. Humility aside, the winner of the MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the “Genius Award”) has contributed immensely to contemporary discussions on race and gender, securing her position as one of the most influential, polarizing artists of her generation.

Do you think that you’ve become more understood as an artist over time? For so long, I’ve dealt with the criticism of perpetuating black stereotypes. But that’s what I was doing and am doing — I’m exploring them, at least, instead of simply trying to repeat them. I’m really interested in how mythologies operate on a visceral level, and the kind of peculiar, queasy way that legend fuses with personal peccadilloes.

Given the controversial nature of your work, have you been surprised by your success? Every day. But being asked to do something like The Black List is definitely a stamp of approval — or a slap on the head, trying to shake me out of my delusions, which are the opposite of grandeur. They’re my delusions of struggling.

Everyone has her own barometer of success. Can you recall the biggest compliment you’ve received for your work? A few years ago, Toni Morrison wrote me a letter. I created a little book for the Peter Norton Christmas project, and I guess Toni Morrison had gotten one. She wrote me a little thank-you note on her personal stationary, and even though it was just a small thing, I framed it. I was really beside myself. I don’t know if she actually likes my work, though. I had a weird encounter with her shortly after that, when I thought, “No wait, she actually hates my work.”

What happened? She had written a libretto for the opera Margaret Garner at the Lincoln Center. And I had put up some works in the lobby area. When we were introduced to one another, I didn’t know what to say. And she seemed, well, kind of … cool. It was a weird situation where our works were thrust together, maybe a little arbitrarily.

What about outrage? I’m sure you’re no stranger to it. The funny thing with outrage is that it comes in written form. In person, I bore people to tears. I’m sort of a firewoman in that respect. But I welcome outrage as long as critics are open to hearing me. My interest in histrionics and the type of self-serving anger that feeds on itself fuels my work. I don’t want to get caught up in it, but I do use that energy in my work.

In The Black List, you said that because you are a black female artist, people always read anger into your art, regardless of what you’re working on. That’s true. But I don’t think it’s pure rage. It’s as if I distance myself from my own potential rage, while also finding it somewhat ridiculous. I almost revel in the absurdity of savage, stereotypical emotions that are often kept under wraps. When I was an undergrad, my work — which wasn’t great — wasn’t concerned about race at all, but about sex and sexuality. And it had the same effect whereby people looked at me as someone with a shy and demure personality, coupled with a “We didn’t know she had it in her” raging hunger.

I would imagine that in order to examine racism, you’re forced to look at the world through the eyes of a racist. That’s one of the things I’m struggling with again — right now, in the studio — the signs, symbols and language around speaking about race, whether it’s identity politics or flat-out neo-Nazi white supremacy language. I’m interested in the language of power, and I’m interested in how it relates to the artist’s relationship with her picture. Whether I’m speaking specifically about American racism or the Black Diaspora, or even identity politics, I’m always thinking about abstraction, about the way that the Modernist language of abstraction is told from a colonialist kind of jungle fever.

And what about tapping into a baser, more sexual version of yourself in these pieces? I suppose one could make more academic work, and I guess there are people who do make more academic work on these topics. But, for me, this is all done with a kind of glee. All of the muck makes up the person that I am.

“Glee.” What a strange, unexpected word to describe your feelings as an artist. Can you remember your most significant experience with explicit racism? In my young adult years, I was introduced to intimate and explicit variations on racial difference. There was an experience with a white American boy, who understood his whiteness through the capture and conquest of a black girl, and the language that developed in what should have been an ordinary, intimate relationship suddenly became damaged, really tinged with … I don’t know if violence is the right word.

Can you recall your first major relationship with a piece of art? There was a show of German Expressionist and Neo-Expressionist art that traveled to Atlanta in the mid- or late-1980s that had a huge impact on me. I remember seeing this history of German art, and thinking, They hate themselves, they hate the world, and they hate painting. The whole thing was just so fraught with urgency and rage, and somewhere underneath all of that, a kind of — it can’t be called love — passion. I thought, That’s what I want to do.

Undeniably, it’s been an incredible year for change in this country. What did Barack Obama’s victory mean to you, personally? In a down-home, deep psychological way, I am so in love with Michelle Obama. Just her presence in the sphere of power is really comforting to me. I keep having Michelle-Obama-as-my-mother dreams, which, you know, we could talk about. Or not.

I’m all ears. I’ve had two very specific dreams where I was her daughter. She was tucking me in. And there was something very soothing about her presence. But back to your question: it’s been an incredible year, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the trauma that’s associated with having to let go of paranoia. Election night was cathartic for a lot of people. And catharsis is just devastating. No matter what — if something blows up, if something goes really right — catharsis takes a lot out of the body, psychically. But it’s a weird time, while the country is hemorrhaging from greed, to consider moral and economic replenishment.

If part of your success as an artist has to do with anger and passion, what happens to the art when those emotions dissipate into optimism? Well, what looks like anger manifest in the work, with bodies hurting each other, is often a metaphor for the creative act. I think that I’m tremendously optimistic, and that’s another thing that drives the work, my ability and desire to say everything at once. But I worry that all of my optimism is sadly tempered with terror. I went down for the inauguration, for example, where I was standing in The National Mall and thinking about that combination. I was surrounded by a unified sense of hopefulness and optimism, but then I looked up and saw this bomber, or whatever it was, circling high above and keeping the air space clear.

Adrenaline was as high as optimism that afternoon. I operate on the fear that lies at the back of everyone’s throat, or the back of mine, at least. When Barack and Michelle got out of their car during the parade, we were all like, “Get back in the car! Get back in the car!” It was a collective, “Oh my God, they’re going to get killed! Oh my God, our optimism’s going to be destroyed! Oh my God, my whole burgeoning sense of self! My new sense of self! My baby!”

Years from now, when you’re gone and people have begun discussing the legacy of your work, what do you hope they’ll say? [Laughs.] I’ve written it all down. It’s on my headstone, which I’ve already had engraved. No, that’s not true. I guess I hope that the work will last beyond the racial moment, you know? We all hope that we don’t die in obscurity and that nobody will bother to dig up our little weavings and notebooks.

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