GRAND SCALE narrative installations, figurative scenes produced as cut-paper silhouettes, brought early acclaim to Kara Walker more than 25 years ago. More recently, she has ventured into monumental public art.

Her first foray was in 2014, when she created “A Subtlety,” her massive sphinx-like mammy figure, a sculpture covered entirely with sugar installed at the old Domino sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Then in 2018, at the close of the Prospect.4 triennial in New Orleans, she parked a steam-powered calliope with a soundtrack of jazz, gospel, and protest songs at Algiers Point. Last fall, “Fons Americanus,” her Hyundai Commission, a towering four-tiered working fountain, debuted in Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London.

Over the course of her career, Walker has also explored more modest-sized sculpture, painting, video, projections, puppets, and even set and costume design. In all these mediums, she tackles the topics that have consistently defined her practice—race, gender, sexuality, and violence—both through a historic lens examining the vestiges of slavery and colonialism and the contemporary moment, invoking police killings and presidential politics.

All along, she’s also been making drawings, which are at the heart of her artistic practice. “Kara Walker: Drawings,” currently on view at Sikkema Jenkins gallery in New York City, includes sketches, studies, cut-paper collages, texts and “dream journals,” from the artist’s personal archive. (The gallery is open by appointment only in the wake of COVID-19.) Earlier works date to the late 1990s and more recent ones were produced between 2016 and 2020.

The drawings provide a window into Kara Walker’s imagination, revealing raw insights, indelicate musings, and thoughtful observations.

Walker is presenting 76 works of art, many of them composed of multiple images. “The Gross Clinician Presents: Pater Gravidam” (2018) is an installation of 38 drawings. “Only I Can Solve This (the 2016 election)” (2016) is comprised of 21 parts—eight text-only works and 13 images. “Who Will Win the Future Race War?” (2012) is 18 inches in height and, when unfurled, stretches an incredible 297 inches (or 24 feet) long. Four large drawings depict President Barack Obama. In all, nearly 270 works on paper are on view.

The drawings provide a window into Walker’s imagination, revealing raw insights, indelicate musings, and thoughtful observations. Depicting acts of violence, perverse sex, and medical trauma, selected images are hard to see and a challenge to decipher. The overwhelming majority of the single-subject works portray women, including a stark and ominous lynching image of a female figure rendered in white on black paper, and a suite of watercolor and ink drawings called “Salvadore Brazil” (1999). Some of the works are stand alone endeavors. Others document Walker’s creative process for specific projects.

 


Detail of KARA WALKER, “The Gross Clinician Presents: Pater Gravidam,” 2018 (graphite, sumi ink, gofun, and gouache on paper; 38 drawings, dimension vary, both horizontal and vertical). | © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

 


Installation view: Left, KARA WALKER, “Untitled,” 2019 (ink, watercolor, gouache, and collage on paper, From suite of 44 works on paper: 11 x 8.5 inches / 27.9 x 21.6 cm), each (vertical and horizontal); Right, KARA WALKER, “Untitled,” 2011 (charcoal on paper; Suite of 7: 22.5 x 30 inches / 57.2 x 76.2 cm, both vertical and horizontal). | Photo by Jason Wyche

 

About five years ago, Walker devoted an entire show to works associated with “A Subtlety,” the Brooklyn installation designed to bring attention to the brutal history of slave labor and American sugar production. Titled “Afterword” (2014-15), the exhibition elaborated on “the creation and aftermath” of the public art work.

Preparatory sketches, models, and two videos were shown along with the severed left fist of the sphinx and molasses figures that were on view with massive figure. Response drawings Walker made during the run of the public art show were also displayed. The presentation provided a behind-the-scenes look at how the intriguing installation came to be and how Walker received the feedback and mixed reactions to the work, most of it delivered via social media and void of any historical context or cultural sensitivity.

Whereas “Afterword” was a comprehensive look at the building blocks for “A Subtlety,” this time out, viewers get a sampling of sketches that have informed a variety of projects. “2015 Book” (2015), for example, is a suite of 11 watercolor and ink drawings made while Walker was preparing “Kara Walker: Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First,” an artist book published on the occasion of an exhibition of the same name at Victoria Miro Gallery in London.

“(Fons Americanus archive)” (2019) is a single sketch from a cache of materials envisioning Walker’s Hyundai Commission. Another untitled image with no date—a reverse silhouette depicting the head of a woman in profile with a scarf tied at her forehead—appears to be the same graphic emblazoned on a porcelain pitcher created in concert with “A Subtlety.”

 


Detail of KARA WALKER, “The Gross Clinician Presents: Pater Gravidam,” 2018 (graphite, sumi ink, gofun, and gouache on paper; 38 drawings, dimension vary, both horizontal and vertical). | © Kara Walker, Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

 


Installation view of KARA WALKER, “The Gross Clinician Presents: Pater Gravidam,” 2018 (graphite, sumi ink, gofun, and gouache on paper; 38 drawings, dimension vary, both horizontal and vertical). | Photo by Jason Wyche

 

Considered the centerpiece of the current exhibition, Walker’s “The Gross Clinician Presents: Pater Gravidam” is inspired by “The Gross Clinic,” an 1875 painting by Thomas Eakins. His subject is Dr. Samuel D. Gross (1804-1884), a Philadelphia surgeon. Regarded as a pioneer in the field, Gross was the founder and first president of the American Surgical Association, and an alumni of the medical college at Thomas Jefferson University. The gallery describes the graphic nature of Walker’s drawings and the ambiguity that threads the series:

    Swathes of graphite, sumi ink, and gouache flesh out scenes of bodily and psychological violence. The context within each drawing is not always clear; some figures are suspended against blank backgrounds, or placed against ruinous landscapes, barren fields and shadowed mountains. While some drawings explicitly depict acts of medical brutality, reflecting the series’ namesake, others invoke a multitude of traumas and symbols, including colonial-era “Yankees,” the snake in the Garden of Eden, palm trees, and police in full riot gear.

Another historic and pioneering figure is the subject of Walker’s drawings: President Obama. Plenty of viewers will find the portraits troublesome. The four works made in 2019 exemplify her tendency toward provocation and dark humor.

Plenty of viewers will find the portraits of President Obama troublesome. The four works made in 2019 exemplify Walker’s tendency toward provocation and dark humor.

Drawing on slights by detractors who falsely insist Obama was born in Kenya (the birthplace of his father) rather than the state of Hawaii, Walker envisions the first black president of the United States in works titled “Barack Obama Tormented Saint Anthony Putting Up With the Whole ‘Birther’ Conspiracy” and “Barack Obama as ‘An African’ With a Fat Pig (by Kara Walker).”

The former references the fact-free campaign mounted against Obama and fueled by Donald Trump; The latter attempts to turn claims intended as racist and derogatory on their head depicting Obama as a toned and handsome colonial-era “African” warrior dominating an obese pink pig, presumably symbolizing Trump.

The artist’s rendering of Iago bears a striking resemblance to the real Trump in “Othello ‘The Moor’ With the Severed Head of Iago in a New and Revised Ending by Kara E. Walker.” In a fourth portrait, a gravitational pull disappears the hope and change of Obama’s presidency into a black hole in “Allegory of the Obama Years by Kara E. Walker,” foreshadowing and visualizing a dark aftermath left in its wake.

 


KARA WALKER, “Barack Obama as Othello ‘The Moor’ With the Severed Head of Iago in a New and Revised Ending by Kara E. Walker,” 2019 (pastel, Conté crayon, charcoal on treated paper, 87.375 x 72 inches / 221.9 x 182.9 cm). | © Kara Walker, Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

 


KARA WALKER, “Imposter Syndrome,” 2020 (charcoal on paper, 82.75 x 72 inches / 210.2 x 182.9 cm). | © Kara Walker, Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

 

WALKER WAS BORN in Stockton, Calif., and grew up in Atlanta from the age 13. She earned a BFA at the Atlanta College of Art (1991) and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (1994). Three years later, she won a MacArthur “genius” fellowship (1997). Today, she lives and works in New York.

“Kara Walker: Drawings” provides an advance look at a selection of works that will be presented in a major museum exhibition touring Europe. Expected to debut May 16 at Kunstmuseum Basel, “A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs to Be” is Walker’s first extensive show in Switzerland. The exhibition is scheduled to travel to the HEART: Herning Museum of Contemporary Art in Herning, Denmark, and the De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art in Tillburg, The Netherlands.

Walker has a deft hand, turning out drawings in a variety of styles, from quick sketches and loosely rendered watercolors to dense, detailed scenes and portraits with distinct lines and light-dark contrasts. Great diversity is even present within the quartet of Obama portraits.

A deep dive into the artist’s curiosity and analysis, the two-decade survey presents a treasure trove of works, most shown publicly for the first time. There is plenty to see, read, and mull.

A deep dive into the artist’s curiosity and analysis, the two-decade survey presents a treasure trove of works, most shown publicly for the first time. There is plenty to see, read, and mull.

Made this year, a large drawing measuring nearly 83 by 72 inches is particularly compelling. Using charcoal, Walker has tightly framed the work with a series of head studies that span the arc of American history from the antebellum period to the Jim Crow and Black Power eras and beyond. There are bandana-wearing “mammy” figures; stereotypical coon caricatures; men and women who look hard-working, weary, and proud; others have perfectly coiffed afros, one has straight hair flowing past her shoulders; and several distinguished figures evince scholarship and professionalism.

Titled “Imposter Syndrome” (2020), the drawing is a commentary on the experiences of African Americans in the United States spanning generations. The center of the work is blank, serving as a mirror, a reflective space in which the viewer can imagine their own image. CT

 

“Kara Walker: Drawings” is on view at Sikkema Jenkins, March 5-April 4, 2020, by appointment only. Given the evolving circumstances related to the COVID-19 virus, check directly with the gallery regarding scheduling

 

TOP IMAGE: Installation view of “Kara Walker: Drawings,” Sikkema Jenkins, New York, N.Y. (March 5-April 4, 2020). Shown, From left, “Barack Obama as Othello ‘The Moor’ With the Severed Head of Iago in a New and Revised Ending by Kara E. Walker” (2019) and “Barack Obama as “An African” With a Fat Pig (by Kara Walker)” (2019).

 

VIEW MORE Sikkema Jenkins produced an e-catalog to accompany “Kara Walker: Drawings”

 

FIND MORE In 2017, another exhibition showcased Kara Walker’s works on paper: the lengthy titled “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!”

READ MORE about Kara Walker’s work and the public discussion she participated in several years ago when a Guernica-style drawing featuring President Obama on view at the Newark Public Library in New Jersey offended some observers

 

BOOKSHELF
“Kara Walker: Hyundai Commission” documents the artist’s monumental sculpture currently on view in Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. “Kara Walker: Figa” and “Consuming Stories: Kara Walker and the Imagining of American Race” both were recently published and relate to “A Subtlety,” the artist’s massive sculptural installation in Brooklyn. “Kara Walker – MCMXCIX” is a sketchbook that features works by Kara Walker, dating back to 1999 when the artist was 29. “The Ecstasy of St. Kara: Kara Walker” accompanied an exhibition of new works—influenced in part by Walker’s residency at the American Academy in Rome. Also consider “Kara Walker: Dust Jackets for the Niggerati” and “Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.”

 


Installation view of “Kara Walker: Drawings,” Sikkema Jenkins, New York, N.Y. (March 5-April 4, 2020). Shown, At right, KARA WALKER, (Fons Americanus archive),” 2019 (charcoal and graphite on paper, 93.125 x 72 inches / 236.5 x 182.9 cm). | Photo by Jason Wyche

 


KARA WALKER, “Untitled,” 2000 (cut paper collage, 12 x 18 inches / 30.5 x 45.7 cm). | © Kara Walker, Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

 


Installation view of six works: KARA WALKER, “Untitled,” 2000 (cut paper collage, 12 x 18 inches / 30.5 x 45.7 cm); plus two works: top center and bottom right, KARA WALKER “Untitled,” 2002-04 (watercolor, ink, graphite, collage, and cut paper on paper, From suite of 24 works on paper: 18.125 x 12.125 inches / 46 x 30.8 cm). | Photo by Jason Wyche

 


Installation view of “Kara Walker: Drawings,” Sikkema Jenkins, New York, N.Y. (March 5-April 4, 2020). | Photo by Jason Wyche

 


KARA WALKER, “Barack Obama as “An African” With a Fat Pig (by Kara Walker),” 2019 (pastel, Conté crayon, charcoal on treated paper, 85.75 x 72 inches / 217.8 x 182.9 cm). | © Kara Walker, Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

 


Installation view of “Kara Walker: Drawings,” Sikkema Jenkins, New York, N.Y. (March 5-April 4, 2020). Shown, from left, KARA WALKER, “Allegory of the Obama Years by Kara E. Walker” (2019) and “Barack Obama Tormented Saint Anthony Putting Up With the Whole “Birther” Conspiracy (2019). | Photo by Jason Wyche

 


KARA WALKER, “Allegory of the Obama Years by Kara E. Walker,” 2019 (pastel, Conté crayon, charcoal on treated paper, 87.375 x 72 inches / 221.9 x 182.9 cm). | © Kara Walker, Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

 


Installation view of “Kara Walker: Drawings,” Sikkema Jenkins, New York, N.Y. (March 5-April 4, 2020). Shown, Far right, KARA WALKER, “I Am Not My Negro,” 2020 (charcoal and pastel on paper, 83.25 x 72 inches /211.5 x 182.9 cm). | Photo by Jason Wyche

 


Installation view of “Kara Walker: Drawings,” Sikkema Jenkins, New York, N.Y. (March 5-April 4, 2020). Shown, From left, KARA WALKER, “The Gross Clinician Presents: Pater Gravidam” (2018) and “Fealty as Feint (a drawing exercise)” (2019). | Photo by Jason Wyche

 

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