AN ARTIST WHOSE WORK garners as much praise for its visual dexterity as it does intellectual debate for its historic and cultural provocation, Kara Walker has moved on from images of slavery and the antebellum South to explore symbols of the New Negro era. The newly published “Kara Walker: Dust Jackets for the Niggerati” complements her 2011 exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., the New York gallery that represents her.

The exhibition “Dust Jackets for the Niggerati—and Supporting Dissertations, Drawings, submitted ruefully by Kara E. Walker,” featured an amazing series of narrative drawings and text-driven, tongue-in-cheek prints that Walker describes as “potential book covers for unwritten essays, works of fiction, and missing narratives of the black migration.”
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For the uninitiated, on the book’s dust jacket, she explains the origins of the term Niggerati:

A fusion of “nigger” and “Literati,” Niggerati was “coined with acerbic wit by novelist Wallace Thurman to describe the bohemian vanguard of young black writers and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance.”
— Kara Walker

In conceiving “Dust Jackets for the Niggerati,” Walker referenced Alain Locke’s “The New Negro,” a seminal text that “signaled an emerging cohesiveness in black American thought and celebrated the creativity of African-Americans,” and was inspired by the Aaron Douglas woodblocks that illustrate the 1925 anthology.

Walker bridges art and words, fashioning her own twist on the Locke/Douglas collaboration. The volume collects her creations alongside writings by poet Kevin Young, New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als, writer and artist Christopher Stackhouse and novelist James Hannaham. Their literary contributions are a thought-provoking whirlwind that matches the candor of Walker’s visuals.

In “Miss Pipi’s Blues Tale,” Young offers an overarching exploration of the messages conveyed in Walker’s dust jacket works. The essay begins with a dissection of the term “refugee” in the context of the media labeling Hurricane Katrina evacuees as such (essentially stripping them of their American citizenry) and the earlier establishment of the Bureau of Freedman, Refugees and Abandoned Lands, the government entity that served as a resource for slaves after the Civil War. Young wonders what if refugee status “did not mean merely a fate filled with homelessness and ruined memory, but with future tense and possibility.” Such questions are considered by Walker’s drawings and prints, which he describes as “refugee art.”

 

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From left, Page 34: “N Word,” 2010 (graphite and pastel on paper). Page 35: “Miss Pipi Title,” 2011 (unique ink transfer on paper).

 

“Miss Hattie,” a short screenplay by Als, examines identity, race and gender issues, alongside matters of pride and choice. Als imagines Hattie McDaniel in 1940 as an average-size black woman with medium-brown skin who dons a fat suit and dark makeup to earn a living in Hollywood and portray the Mammy character in “Gone with the Wind” for which she earns a supporting actress Oscar (the first black woman to do so).

Stackhouse contributes three poems that he describes as “examples of similarity in aesthetic and methodological scope between Kara’s work as a draftsmen and my work as a poet.” And a work of fiction by Hannaham, “Who is Delicious?” follows Darlene as she navigates the indignities of watermelon picking at Delicious Foods.

Given their subject and tenor, the four texts could comfortably be wrapped in Walker’s “dust jackets.”

 

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Masterfully executed, the concept and design for “Dust Jackets for the Niggerati” were created by COMA, a design duo (Cornelia Blatter and Marcel Hermans) based in Amsterdam and New York. Rather than being confined to a vertical column on the inside flap, the book’s cogent description, written by Walker, is laid out horizontally and incorporated into the entire dust jacket, which unfolds into a poster-size sheet that on the reverse features a detail of one of her works, “…(And Modern Black Identity).”

The volume’s pages are produced on heavy, creme-colored matte stock where the contributing authors’s texts are interspersed with plates from the exhibition, creating a lively dialogue between Walker’s art and the prose it has inspired.

“Kara Walker: Dust Jackets for the Niggerati” is a pleasure to explore, contemplate and digest. The book itself is a work of art. CT

 

Kara Walker: Dust Jackets for the Niggerati by Kara Walker, Hilton Als, James Hannaham, Christopher Stackhouse and Kevin Young (Gregory R. Miller & Co., 144 pages) Published Sept. 30, 2013.

 

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Pages 90-91: “Urban Relocator,” 2011 (graphite and pastel on paper).

 

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Installation view of “Dust Jackets” exhibit at Sikkema Jenkins gallery.

 

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Pages 38-39: “Up From Slubbery,” 2010 (unique ink transfer on paper).

 

In his essay, Young describes the above work as “remarking quite literally on Booker T. [Washington’s] ‘Up from Slavery.’ Walker’s work may even read as marginalia arguing with that book among others that both inspired and necessitated the New Negro.”

 

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Pages 62-63: “Muckraking Prophet from the 21st c. Foretells Coming Doom and Encourages the Youth,” 2011 (graphite and pastel on paper, the second of a pair of drawings).

 

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Pages 66-67: “Augusta Savage,” 2010 (unique ink transfer on paper).

 

A tribute to sculptor Augusta Savage, the above work is among several Walker created about women in the arts, including Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and actress Louise Beavers.

 

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Pages 84-85: “Fern/Cancellation,” 2011 (graphite, pastel and ink on paper).

 

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From left, Page 102: “…(And Modern Black Identity),” 2010 (unique ink transfer on paper); Page 103: “Kiss,” 2010 (graphite and pastel on paper).

 

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From left, Page 132: Installation view of “You are a Remarkable Woman, 2010 (unique ink transfer on paper); Page 133: Installation view of “Excape,” 2011 (graphite and pastel on paper).

 

The “Dustjackets” exhibit at Sikkema Jenkins (April 21 to June 11, 2011) coincided with “Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale,” a presentation of three new video works at Lehmann Maupin gallery.

 

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