Contemporary artist Kara Walker grew up in the shadow of Stone Mountain, one of the largest memorials celebrating the heroes of the Confederacy, and she recently discussed how that monument has affected her own cut-paper art.
"I make work that's historical, that's profiled, that's cut out," she told Vulture.com. "There was a moment, looking up at it, where I knew that this … monument was the biggest influence on my work."
Walker's art subtly targets the racial and sexual violence of the Civil War era, and explores how the damage from the institution of slavery continues to revolve in the present.
On Monday, the High Museum of Art announced it has acquired a mural-sized work by Walker, a 60-foot-wide paper-cut titled “The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin.”
The mural, a parade of black silhouettes, places the images of the Confederate generals in a new satirical context that is dark and darkly comic.
It is the High’s first acquisition of a major work by the 47-year-old artist.
"We are honored to acquire this major work by one of today's most significant and influential artists," said Rand Suffolk, the High's director, in a statement. "Like all of Walker's work, this piece profoundly questions the resonance of our collective past while challenging us to consider what exactly will determine a shared future. These questions remain greatly important."
Walker’s cut-paper mural at the High Museum won’t be displayed until next year’s reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection.
Born in Stockton, Calif., in 1969, Kara Walker moved to Atlanta when she was 13. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991, and earned a master’s degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994.
That year, she made an instant sensation with her debut in New York City, a mural-sized installation of cut-paper silhouettes detailing the grotesqueries of the antebellum South with the puckish title "Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b'tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart."
Her broad caricatures of black stereotypes and the images of debased sexuality both repulsed and fascinated audiences. Three years later, she won a MacArthur Award at the precocious age of 27.
Recently Walker moved beyond the studio with what has been called the largest public art installation in the history of New York City.
In 2014, more than 130,000 people visited her gigantic sculpture, "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby," at the former Domino Sugar compound in Brooklyn. A 35-foot-tall, 75-foot-long, sugar-coated black female sphinx, with the kerchief and the exaggerated features of a "Mammy," the naked figure was built of polystyrene foam blocks, covered with 40 tons of sugar, water and resin.
The work commented directly on the destructive sugar industry with its subtitle: “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.”
When the refinery was built in the 1800s, much of the sugar cane was harvested by slaves, and post-slavery wages were so low as to keep many sugar workers in virtual bondage.
The sculpture was built to be destroyed. It was cleared away, along with the refinery itself, as the forces of gentrification brought mixed-use development to the waterfront area.
One part of it remains. The outsized left hand of the sphinx is to be displayed this summer in a former slaughterhouse on the Greek island Hydra.
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