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Kara Walker, Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)

Kara Walker has had over three dozen solo shows since 1995 and, so far as I can tell, the last of them to exhibit in Texas was over nine years ago when “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” visited the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.  It seems quite rare that her work is exhibited in the South, much less Texas.

In the spring of 2014 her Marvelous Sugar Baby sculpture in the vacant Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn became the most talked about art installation of the year, and frankly, I have heard nothing about another work of art discussed as much.  An enormous sphinx made with large sugar cube blocks, it exhibited familiar critiques of the black Mammy iconography that Walker observers should recognize from her earlier conceptual work with silhouettes, prints and Jim Crow era found objects.

So far as I know, there has yet to be a major Kara Walker show in Houston.  The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, however, possesses the fifteen print series of lithographs and screenprints produced by Sikkema Jenkins & Co from Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) 2005-2006.  These prints are absolutely shocking and remarkable to view and, at least for a short period, a small number are on exhibit during this last phase of Statements: African American Art from the Museum’s Collection.  I can only hope that one day the Museum takes the time to display the entire range of their collected lithographs.

In 1866, Harper’s editor Alfred Guernsay released the Pictorial History of the Civil War.  Originally released in two volumes and over 800 pages, this publication featured more than 1000 illustrations culled from the files of Harper’s throughout the war years.  For the last fifty years, inexpensive coffee table versions on cheaper, thinner paper have been a standard on the bargain gift tables of many American bookstores and the volume is about as inescapable as anything which seeks to document the Civil War.  Kara Walker is not the first to point out the ways in which the book and its many reprints have sheared away any references to slavery and emancipation as well as the role of African Americans in the war.  But academics and artists, frequently with lamentable small audiences, continue to knock against the interpretation of a Civil War over slavery that curatorially excises the black experience of the war from the history and visual record. 

With those issues aside, however, I must confess that I- and presumably Kara Walker- found these 19th century newsprint illustrations of major events and turning points of the War, as well as the banality of routine, boring soldiering, utterly captivating.  The original illustrations are an absolute high point in mid19th century visual arts and illustrations.  Kara Walker’s “annotations” however force us to reconsider these familiar, often iconographic illustrations.

The use of sexualized and stereotyped images of African Americans from Jim Crow era minstrelsy and popular culture is central to Walker’s art as early as her first use of these images in her Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart (1994).  Now that Gone is installed at MOMA, Walker teaches at Columbia, and the City’s memory of Marvelous Sugar Baby continues to linger she remains the most prominent African American artist of the contemporary moment.

These large scale panoramas, screenprints, and installations are always arresting when viewed for the first time, surprising in their size and vividness.  The reminder of how often African Americans were removed from the central places in our national memory stands in stark juxtaposition with how often they were also portrayed as either fools or objects for sexual gratification in our nation's vulgar entertainments.  Kara Walker's art forces us to acknowledge this reality lest we forget how routinely early 20th century mass culture and popular media established long entrenched racial stereotypes and assumptions. 

If one sees these five Kara Walker prints at the MFAH's Statements exhibit, I would also encourage you to stop for a moment and view the photographs by Gordon Parks from the 1940s for further reminders of the impact of this history on the lives of African Americans in the late Jim Crow era.

Gordon Parks, Children with Doll, Washington DC, 1942

Further links and writing about these prints:


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