Playing with history

Kara Walker's civil war
By GREG COOK  |  January 30, 2007

THE RICH SOIL DOWN THERE: The fantasia of race and sex and shit manifests themes of power and slavery.

In February 1862, with the Civil War not yet a year old, Union forces took Fort Henry, a Confederate outpost on the Tennessee River, as they began to open up Southern waterways for supply lines. They then continued down along the river through Confederate Tennessee and into Alabama. “We have met the most gratifying proofs of loyalty,” a Union lieutenant reported. “Men, women, and children, several times gathered in crowds of hundreds, shouted their welcome, and hailed their national flag with an enthusiasm there was no mistaking.”

An illustration published in the two-volume Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War of 1866 and 1868 documents just such a scene. In 2005, New York artist Kara Walker revised the original by adding the black silhouette of an African-American woman who has tripped at the back of the white throng rushing down to the river. She wears a ragged skirt and a kerchief is tied around her hair mammy-style, but she’s topless. Her presence calls attention to a fully clothed black woman (a wet-nurse slave?) who’s at the back of the crowd in the original, dashing along cradling a white baby in her arms. A little black boy stumbles to the ground behind her, in danger of being left behind and maybe trampled.

It’s one of the prints from Walker’s 2005 series “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated),” which is on view at the Philips Academy’s Addison Gallery through April 15. Walker enlarges lithographs of the Harper’s originals and screenprints her signature black silhouetted characters on top, as if they were graffiti moustaches elegantly scrawled on billboards. The silhouettes become ghosts (a reference to the slur “spook”?) haunting the Civil War, interrogating the portrayal of African-Americans in history and their role in the war.

ALABAMA LOYALISTS GREETING THE FEDERAL GUN-BOATS: Walker makes you realize how easily classifications of race and gender can slide into bigoted caricature.

Walker, who’s now 37, lived in California until her family moved to Atlanta when she was 12. “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,” she said in a 1999 interview with New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “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.”

While studying at Rhode Island School of Design, where she earned a master’s degree in 1994, she made her great formal move: reviving the 19th-century art of the cut-paper silhouette. It had been seen as decorative and a women’s medium and had long been out of favor except in second-grade classrooms — three strikes against it in the art world. Walker seized on it for these very reasons: it was beautiful, it spoke of womanhood, it spoke to history. And the stark black paper stuck to white walls was an elemental metaphor for race.

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