General 3-11-2007

Kara Walker at the Walker: An Interview with Curators Philippe Vergne and Yasmil Raymond

Ann Klefstad spoke with Walker curators Philippe Vergne and Yasmil Raymond about Kara Walker's amazing and mordant exhibition "My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love."


This show really is as brilliant as people say it is. Kara Walker is the bard and bawd of the complex culture that black and white make together. She doesn’t preach or teach, she shows, in inescapable ways. No one can hide behind a stable identity in this work; we all slip into each other and out of each other, we take turns at the whip hand.

The phantasms of race that make up the Walker’s retrospective of Kara Walker take many forms. The silhouettes that defined her early fame are well represented here, in cyclorama friezes that surround the viewer, and in later experiments using colored projections to theatricalize the vivid yet static figures that dance out of a nightmare of slavery and into the current black-and-white culture. She also made films in shadow-puppetry that mock and mourn and celebrate the life of the Negress, her persona and stalking horse. Along with the silhouette-based work she has large drawings and watercolors done a la Daumier, expressive and as virtuosic as any you’ll see anywhere.

The Walker itself, as an institution, has had a long and ongoing relationship with Kara Walker and owns several key pieces of her work. Philippe Vergne and Yasmil Raymond curated this show, a process that unfolded over three years. Their choice to create with her this comprehensive retrospective—despite her relative youth—was driven by several factors.

When I spoke to them, it appeared that their initial motivation arose from Walker’s remarkable ability to address the central wounds of our culture—racial and sexual oppression—in ways that open questions rather than attempting to answer them, therefore retaining the freedom and range of her art. Second seems to be her ability to balance on knife-edges of interpretation, deftly dodging finality, insisting that the work remain open in the public space, working toward resolution only in the individual minds of its spectators. Third, as Vergne says, she is simply a remarkable artist. Her work is beautiful, her line is stunningly charged, and she dares a sensuality that’s riveting in its effectiveness even while being sometimes stomach-turning in its subject matter.

Interview: Philippe Vergne and Yasmil Raymond

Ann Klefstad: We know the basic facts about Kara Walker: that she grew up in an artistically sophisticated family, that she moved as a young woman from California to Georgia, that she got an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, that she got a MacArthur “genius” grant before she was 30. We know she does art about race. What’s your insight as a curator into her work?

Philippe Vergne: She’s been making art since she was a child. She is someone who is involved with the artworld conversation. How can a young black woman make art that relates in some meaningful way to the artworld of her time? To concentrate on the race issues, doing that limits an understanding of her work. She has a much larger relation to the art of her time. . . .

After years of conceptual art, she is one of the artists who has reintroduced aesthetic pleasure and attraction in her work. . . Also, for me, she is talking about history, when you talk about history in America, race is part of that.

Yasmil Raymond: I think, she is a black woman, wherever she went she would experience racism. . . . She’s a black woman making art today, in a figurative way, exploring painting in a multicultural world, which was the condition after she got out of RISD.

AK: I wanted to ask you about a Kara Walker quote from the Walker website: “I think the thing about racism is that we simply love it. Who would we be without the struggle?” Who do you think is the “we” that loves . . .

PV: It’s words coming out of Kara’s mouth, the “we” that she would portray is not the “we” that you would portray or I would portray. She’s talking about America, I would think that would include anyone who holds an American passport or pays taxes.

AK: So you think that she’s talking about American culture in general?

YR: What people can find troubling is that Kara can find things about racism appealing, noble . . . people think, look, you can use this representation if you identify an oppressor and an oppressed, it’s ok as long as the codes are simple. But in this work the codes are not simple. It’s difficult to find good guys and bad guys.

AK: Yes, certainly, everyone is complicitous. . . .

PV: Is it the work that’s controversial or is it what Kara pictures that’s controversial?

The work is about oppression and power, sexual and racial. The first thing for her is to witness what’s happening in her time, and to make a reaction to what’s happening in her time. It’s not her work that’s controversial, it’s what lies behind it.

Wherever you live, her work is an open structure . . . what is controversial in her work will differ for you, for me, for Yasmil, that’s what is interesting about her work, that nobody leaves the room intact, she’s able to put the finger on everybody’s wound, whether it’s sex, or race, or class. And that I think that is where the work is strong, it will be that way when the work goes to Paris, people there have not the same wounds as American history, but the work will still address them.

She is leading with those wounds that nobody wants to talk about, the structure of history, how come that the birth of America as a nation is unspeakable. That’s where it’s very difficult—

AK: Isn’t it also difficult because the unspeakable is made in some ways pleasurable?

PV: I would say “accessible” rather than pleasurable—although these things are very subjective. The work is immediately accessible.

AK: But some things that seem powerful and original about the work are also true of black entertainment culture: full of money and pleasure, it exists between black and white spaces, and is constituted by both black and white.

PV: What sort of entertainment culture?

AK: Like certain kinds of hiphop and rap, in which violence, for instance, is made into a pleasurable spectacle for black and white audiences.

PV: I’m not sure that I’d call that pleasurable, but if you go in that direction, I’d think instead of the wit of Richard Pryor or Spike Lee– like the film “Bamboozled.” . . But mainly, she’s doing conceptual art.

I’d rather see her work in the context of art history, because the code she’s using in her work is the code of Matisse, the code of abstract expressionism, the abuse portrayed in her work is as close to Egon Schiele as it is to hiphop, so to open the scope of her work, carve her a place in the history of art, from which her culture has been excluded, as an African American painter, because she keeps repeating that, “I am a painter,” that’s her work.

There are many branches in the history of art that relate – like Goya, like maybe she is a bridge between Goya and now.

She’s addressing something which is very very basic—“as long as there is someone saying ‘you don’t belong’” . . . it’s very present in our lives, people saying to others “you don’t belong here.” I think that’s the main point here.

YR: I think that’s the beauty of her work, it’s about oppression,

AK: It’s a complex way of talking about oppression, not a simple way of talking about oppression, it has extra salt. It talks about how people use oppression in a thousand ways, both oppressors and oppressed.

PV: That’s why it upsets people. It talks about how there is evil in goodness and goodness in evil, so she is blowing out of the water the usual notions of virtue. This is for me what gives the work its universal dimension. She’s using something she knows from the root of her own culture, but she uses it like Europeans use Greek mythology, to inform you about the present.

AK: It’s rhetorical?

PV: I read recently the novel by Edward Jones, The Known World, a narrative from the slave time, of a slave owner who is black. Walker also does fiction. People tend to have some essentialist read on it, but she’s making things up. People forget that.

AK: Have you worked with Kara Walker before?

PV: No, I have not. But I’ve known her for a long time, and the Walker has had this relationship, the first time we brought the work to the collection we knew it would be a long-term relationship.

She has had an unusual history, an unusual aesthetic, and an ethic–The conversation kept going, I didn’t want to lose the aesthetic part.

AK: What was the impetus for this retrospective? What made you approach her at this time?

PV: Three years ago, just before we reopened the Walker, we asked, would she consider putting her work in perspective?

First, I was personally interested in it. Then, we were interested in the role a place like the Walker can play, to give artists who are reaching a certain level the opportunity to have an extended conversation about the work. I think we can dedicate space, time, means, to not promote the work, but to provide the artist and the audience with tools to better know the work, what’s happening in the practice.

She is an exception. She’s 37 years old, it’s very difficult for an artist to do an exhibition like this so young–but she’s been so politique, and her work has been so layered, and has changed so much in its own consistency over the past 10 years that for her own sake it would be good to do an exhibition that would lay it all out. It was fascinating to be able to spend time looking at this work’s development.

YR: And, what we were just talking about, the content of the work, the violence, racism, oppression, is so much a part of what is being discussed right now in the world right now, I don’t want to sound too much political . . . but you cannot open the newspaper today without seeing the core of what she is discussing in her work, whether it’s through Fallujah, Sudan, the crisis of immigration in Europe, it’s everywhere, she’s able to put her finger on these issues, without being a preacher, she’s every thing that she is, and everything ugly she can touch with her history.

One of the reasons for the show, then, is that her particular relation to American history is joining issues in the world that are particularly pointed right now.

PV: And can I say something that is totally stupid?

AK: Of course!

PV: She’s just such an amazing artist.

AK: What would you ask the public to bring to the show, in order to see it on its own terms? How would you prepare people to see the show?

PV: I wouldn’t ask them to bring anything; I’d ask them to leave things at home. To bring only an open mind and an open eye . . .

YR: I would say expect to do mental exercise, to stretch, to have high expectations of art.

PV: Kara Walker has high expectations of art. What is happening in the art world right now, the glamour, the money, very personality-oriented— but she is reminding us that what art has been traditionally is a very serious matter, and that a work of art is not meant to please everybody. That it’s fine not to like it. That a work of art is here, not to find solutions but to help us find questions.

To come with questions and with time. Time to find your own answers, not to be judgmental . . .

YR: And also to return again, because the education department here has come up with many programs and opportunities to speak, to be heard, to ask questions. There are 11 different programs associated with this show. They really went out of their way to provide the audience with a variety of tools to understand Kara and her work.

Among the many activities and programs that supplement this show (see links below for more) are these:

Thursdays, March 15, March 22, attend the Art Lab Workshop from 5 pm on, and design and make your own silhouette from felt. Taught by artist Roger Cummings of Juxtaposition Arts.

Thursday, March 29, hear the 7:30 pm lecture by Kevin Gaines of the University of Michigan on “Confronting History, Race, and Stereotypes.” Free tickets available in the Bazinet Lobby.

Thursday, April 5, take a tour of the exhibition at 6 pm and then participate at 7 pm in “The Artists Bookshelf,” a books discussion program that will cover, this time, “The Known World” by Edward P Jones. The book is available in the Walker Bookshop and the Minneapolis Public Library.

Thursday, April 12, at 7 pm hear Dr. Dorothy Roberts of the Northwestern University School of Law speak on “Violating Black Women’s Bodies: The Legacies of Slavery in Contemporary U.S. Society.”

Thursday, April 19, again at 7, poet and scholar Taiyon Coleman will speak on “The Influence of Uncle Tom.”

Thursday, April 26, “Humor Noir” will be the subject of a talk by Simon Critchley, author of “On Humour.”

Classes based on the exhibition are also available; see the link below to find the listings on the Walker website.