Stone Mountain, not far from Walker’s childhood home outside Atlanta, Georgia, is the site of the world’s largest bas-relief, an ignominious tribute to three Confederate leaders in the American Civil War and their favorite horses. The town was also the site of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organization, in 1915. In her work, Walker often combines humor and horror to depict provocative, confrontational tableaux set in the Civil War–era South, prompting difficult and uncomfortable questions about how race, gender, power, and the construction of history inform American society.
This monumental triptych layers iconography, including the figures of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, horses, Klansmen, the Confederate flag, and male and female nude figures, into a swirling, quasi-apocalyptic scene of physical and sexual domination and degradation. The title refers to the rarely delivered reparations promised to emancipated American slaves: “forty acres and a mule,” or land and an animal to work it. The confluence of this place and this animal also suggests the mule-led funeral procession of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who proclaimed in his landmark 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.” Inspiring reactions from shock and embarrassment to disgust and anger, 40 Acres of Mules confronts viewers with its size, complexity, and challenging imagery.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Kara Walker creates historical allegories in which characters play out repulsive dramas of racial and gender bigotry with cool detachment and biting humor. This three-part drawing was inspired by a trip the artist took to Stone Mountain Park, outside Atlanta. Considered by some to be the spiritual home of the Ku Klux Klan, the park houses the infamous granite relief sculpture depicting three Confederate leaders of the Civil War: Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Walker’s large-scale drawing shows the generals and their horses, Klansmen, the Confederate flag, nude figures, and mules in a swirling, quasi-apocalyptic scene of domination and degradation. The central figure, a black man, his hands bound by rope, takes on the role of the martyr of Western history paintings. This work was made in 2015, a moment marked by Black Lives Matter, a mass mobilization to protest racial profiling and police brutality. The title refers to the undelivered reparations promised to emancipated slaves under the phrase “forty acres and a mule,“or land and an animal to work it. It also calls to mind the mule-led funeral procession for Martin Luther King, Jr., whose 1962 “I Have a Dream” speech proclaimed, “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!”
Gallery label from Unfinished Conversations, March 19-July 30, 2017.