Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)

On loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

On view: July 1, 2020 – September 27, 2020

For over two decades, African American artist Kara Walker (born 1969) has been making work that weaves together imagery from the antebellum South, the brutality of slavery, and racist stereotypes. Best known for her use of the cut-paper silhouette, she transforms the genteel eighteenth-century portrait medium into stark, haunting tableaux.

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Walker plays with the idea of misrepresenting misrepresentations, stating, “The whole gamut of images of black people, whether by black people or not, are free rein in my mind.” Her work has stirred controversy for its use of exaggerated caricatures that reflect existing racial and gender stereotypes and for its lurid depictions of history, challenging viewers to consider America’s origins of racial inequality. In Walker’s art, the present is defined by the past and the past exerts a savage power.

Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) is a series of fifteen prints based on the two-volume anthology published in 1866. To create her prints, Walker enlarged select illustrations and then overlaid them with large stenciled figures. The shadowy images visually disrupt the original scenes and suffuse them with traumatic scenarios left out of the official record. Mangled and grotesque figures escape the boundaries of the anthology’s pictures, expanding into the margins and the space of real life.

Walker’s prints are presented alongside a selection of the original Harper’s images on which they are based. Seen together, the two bodies of work shed light on Walker’s artistic process and her approach to history as an always-fraught, always-contested narrative. Her ghostly scenes assert the influence of racial history on contemporary life and create a provocative dialogue between the past and the present.

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Dive Deeper with Additional Resources

Exhibition Walk-through with Kirsty Buchanan
Rockwell Museum Curator of Collections and Exhibitions

Live Stream Advancing Women Lecture, Recording | Kara Walker and History’s Shadows
Sarah Newman, PhD, James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum’s traveling exhibition program, Treasures to Go.

Unless otherwise noted, all works are by Kara Walker and are credited as Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2008.19.1.1–.15


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