I wanted to become an artist when I was about three, primarily because my father is also an artist--he's a painter and teaches and has taught for many years--of the sort that you might find in The Museum of Modern Art, perhaps, one day ... Because of him, I've gained a desire to have an imagination, which was never very easy for me ... [and] was epitomized by being able to fantasize about traveling in time. But I could never really fully imagine myself doing that, because there was always some bit of brutality, some little hint of reality, that prevented me from getting very far ...

I guess there was a little bit of a slight rebellion, maybe a little bit of renegade desire that made me realize at some point in my adolescence that I really liked pictures that told stories of things--genre paintings, historical paintings--the sort of derivatives we get in contemporary society. . And, what I would ordinarily say about these pictures is that when I was coming along in Georgia, I became black in more senses than just the kind of multicultural acceptance that I grew up with in California. Blackness became a very loaded subject, a very loaded thing to be--all about forbidden passions and desires, and all about a history that's still living, very present ... the shame of the South and the shame of the South's past; its legacy and its contemporary troubles. Race issues are always at the heart of these matters. And then I got interested in the ways that I almost wanted to aim to please ... and fulfill these kinds of desires, these assumptions and associations with blackness. I became very submissive and subservient to myths about blackness, the [kind of] blackness that's exotic, animalistic, or savage; or noble and strong and forceful--worth putting on display, something grander than grand.

And so I started a couple of years ago keeping a notebook of words and ideas and images, and just about anything that I could to process what blackness was and is all about for me--very personal writings, along with just clippings, nothing that was art, just a way of getting at ideas. I was, at the time, interested in Adrian Piper's political self-portraits and maybe the way she could discuss an incident in her childhood and merge it with a larger political issue or agenda. Also [in] collecting little bits of ... Black Americana from flea markets around the area, but nothing of the sort that serious collectors might find ... sometimes reproductions of older works, things that are being pulled out of the attics and mass-produced for the benefit of this newly aware black collecting audience…

I knew that if I was going to make work that had to deal with race issues, they were going to be full of contradictions. Because I always felt that it's really a love affair that we've got going in this country, a love affair with the idea of it [race issues], with the notion of major conflict that needs to be overcome and maybe a fear of what happens when that thing is overcome-- And, of course, these issues also translate into [the] very personal: Who am I beyond this skin I'm in? beyond this place where I've been changed?

This is a picture of an 18th century silhouette-making device, a little window to the world. While I was working on drawings, keeping a notebook, I was really searching for a format to sort of encapsulate, to simplify complicated things--it's very difficult to look at words and images over and over again. And some of it spoke to me as: "it's a medium--historically, it's a craft--and it's very middle-class." It spoke to me in the same way that the minstrel show does--it's middle class white people rendering themselves black, making themselves somewhat invisible, or taking on an alternate identity because of the anonymity ... and because the shadow also speaks about so much of our psyche. You can play out different roles when you're rendered black, or halfway invisible.

The other influence is the cyclorama. What the cyclorama and the silhouette have in common is that they're complete opposites, but they're sort of not relegated to art. The cyclorama is a grand scale painting and diorama in the round, sort of a late 19th century, pre-cinematic entertainment, grand history painting overblown. And where those two meet is somewhere here: [my work] The Battle of Atlanta, which is a 400-foot painting in the round with a diorama in the front, creating an illusion of space, whereas the silhouette, of course, flattens out space and identity.


The Battle of Atlanta

This is a piece of mine called The Battle of Atlanta : Being the Narrative of a Negress in the Flames of Desire - A Reconstruction. This was the first piece I did in Atlanta, sort of a homecoming. I guess what happened somewhere in the recesses of my mind was I had appropriated and assimilated all sorts of the detritus of blackness without having searched for it ... and maybe through years of denial about where we've come from or what we've achieved, at least in my family. All of the bad vibes, the bad feelings, all of the nastiness, and all of the sort of vulgar associations with blackness, and the more base associations in this culture about Black Americans or Africans bubble up to the surface of my brain and spill out into this work. I'm not really about blackness, per se, about blackness and whiteness, and what they mean and how they interact with one another and what power is all about. And I guess with this work, it's the Negress, this semi-artificial artist attempting to usurp power from everybody.

What's the driving force that has you creating this work?

That's a big one. The driving force--there's a lot of them. They're crashing into one another a lot of the time. I wanted to, at first, investigate interracial desire. I think it maybe started from that. And the ways in which it seemed, in my life, to challenge set stereotype notions about blackness and whiteness and how they're operating in Georgia, where I was. Well, let's see, let's be anecdotal [about this]. The feeling of being thrust into history for walking down the street with a white man by some outside force--say a Ku Klux Klan or a guy who leaves a flyer on my car after spotting this illicit liaison.... The feeling of walking and talking and having to be historical somehow, bearer of some truth of history. [It's] wanting to make up for the absent 19th century Negress artist who made the cyclorama of the battle of her life. And wanting to take that place and knowing my inability to do that ... with any sort of real authenticity and knowing that I'm just taking on roles. The way that a picture can inspire lust or bad feelings or distrust or conflict within the viewer--a lot of things.

What are your feelings on race issues?

It's never been anything I can verbalize well, and since I'm not much of a politician… It is the grand drama, in a way. It's the thing--"It", racism in general--it's easier to see if you kind of polarize it between color opposites, sort of a dramatic color differentiation, something to that effect. It's very visual, but I don't know if I really want to go into my feelings on that--it's where I go with the work.
Where do you see yourself going?

I don't know. I have to do some new work right now, and I have some ideas in mind, but it's a difficult next step... once having done the cyclorama. I don't know if that's a beginning or a summation just yet. I need to sort of sit back and draw and write a few things and figure out where my head is. I don't want to keep repeating myself to the point where this gets really easy to do, or to look at ... It'll be something--I plan to be working until I'm at least 95.

I think maybe that's inevitable with art work anyway...Black American representation historically has been sort of in the edges of...Pop culture--the minstrel show image, or the Bull Durham image that I had mentioned --this kind of advertising or very familiar stereotypes. And I decided for me to look at that work as an American form--you know it's somebody's representation of somebody else, even if it is a non-existent character or characterization. So in the same way that this work can be read wrong all over the place, I decided to go back and look at these historical images and read them wrong too--read them as something more powerful than they were meant to be.

In galleries: on The Migration Series

I was debating all day on what work in the collection I should talk about… When I was 16 and I came here for the first time, it was like a pilgrimage, it was like a serious endeavor to see all that work from the books that were lying around in the house, the work that my dad would show me--a Cézanne, and talk about the triangles-- and I thought, "Oh, I could give a little personal story about that, growing up with that." And then I though about talking about the Picasso "damsels" from Avignon, but I thought that would be too easy or obvious, and I wouldn't know what to say.

And then Jacob Lawrence was here, and I am still not sure of what to say. There's something about this piece: there's something that I love and something that I hate. And what I love is its ability to be artful and tell a story, or tell a story in ways we hadn't seen. And when this show...happened in Atlanta some years ago, it was a major deal for the community to come out and see this work.

What I don't like about this work, and what I've tried...to avoid in my own work, is this overbearing explanation. The images stand on their own, but there's this need...to explain, to make sure that everyone understands and, in a way, it's almost sad. I guess in this country it's a very American piece, but it's also very universal, and it's sad in a way that you have to tell people things that they probably should already know, and tell them cut-and-dry, "This is what was happening, and this is what this picture is about." But I think [these works are] beautiful. They're egg tempera, so they're hard to do, relatively, and they're all about a kind of a truth. They're all about making a story out of history; they're history paintings, and that's just what I like.

I think Jacob Lawrence has an awesome sense of composition, and this amazing way of simplifying, just getting what's necessary...I think it's admirable.

The specific narrative is about the migration of Blacks from the South to the North, and as you read along, it gives you [an account of] what was happening and why they wanted to leave and what motivated them. They're beautiful paintings on their own.

I guess one thing that's in the back of my mind when I look at these is Black Art exhibits of my youth and...seeing work...[by] small town artists--you know, [the kind of work that says] "this is Stone Mountain" or "this is Stockton, California"...[from] the '70s. So there's a sort of post-civil rights or post-cathartic moment happening in the work that's so strong, so overbearing in my memory...[I find the work a] sort of sensual kind of poetry in the way the figures are allowed to interact and not interact with "the man," the police, but interact with one another; [it's] a beautiful thing. That struggle and pain is depicted...as a quiet moment...the existence of these people at this time.

Kara Walker

©1999 The Museum of Modern Art, New York