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Out of her shadows

Artist Kara Walker finds meaning for the present in a dialogue with the past -- mural-size silhouettes depicting Southern slavery.

October 19, 2005|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — "Everything about this picture is wrong," says Kara Walker, recalling the image that launched her into a reexamination of herself as an artist. It was, she says, "sick pedophiliac voyeurism."

In her early 20s at the time, Walker was between undergraduate and graduate school and, by her own account, was flailing about, trying to find her artistic identity. Then she saw a vintage photograph, circa 1900, of a young black woman in a tattered frock, holding up a fan. "Some class, eh?" read the caption on the commercial postcard, designed for a certain white audience with a contempt for the perceived pretensions of African Americans.

"It sent me reeling because there are so many potential voices in it," says Walker, 35, sitting in her modest studio in the garment district of Manhattan. "What can she be thinking? There's a kind of ventriloquism in it. It sent me back and forth, thinking how as an artist we react to images, how as a black woman with some conscience do I react to this kind of image? I was trying to figure out what exactly my own voice was, what was not being spoken about in my own work."

Such thinking began to give her work a focus -- on racism, the American South and the conflicting images people carry deep within themselves. And she began to use the silhouettes for which she has become known, blowing the quaint, 19th century method of portraiture and illustration up to mural size. Except that Walker's scenes, of white masters and black slaves set against the lush landscape of the antebellum South, are dystopian: People chisel, hatchet or grind up each other; they have sex in shocking combinations.

'Drawing is like thinking'

Tall and lanky with a serene face and soft smile, Walker speaks in a low, self-conscious voice. She hesitates before answering a question, a tentativeness that contrasts with the black-and-white verve of her art. The studio is stripped down, she explains, because most of the work has been shipped out. Only one silhouette is tacked to a wall, of a stout black woman with an upraised arm holding something -- rolling pin? cleaver? -- that can no longer be discerned. In fact, the figure has been cut out and relocated, leaving the large sheet of black paper and its void. Residual drawing marks the edges of the space.

"The drawing is the basis of everything," Walker says. "Drawing is like thinking or writing for me. This is how I can tell what is happening in this little morass of my imagination." As she talks, she doodles. When she talks about King Cotton in "Kara E. Walker's Song of the South," the multimedia installation on view at the Gallery at REDCAT in Los Angeles, she sketches him. When mentioning her little cotton sprites, offspring of the miscegenation depicted in the accompanying film, she sketches one of the creatures.

It's been a busy year. She installed a mural in a stairwell of the New School University in New York. Her dealer, Sikkema Jenkins, took a new mural, "Freedom Fighters for the Society of Forgotten Knowledge, Northern Domestic Scene, 2005," to the Basel, Switzerland, art fair. And this summer, she created her film and performance for the REDCAT show, which obliquely refers to the Disney animation of 1946. She also teaches at Columbia University, where she is an associate professor of visual arts.

Eungie Joo, director of the REDCAT gallery, says she persuaded Walker to produce a new work for the gallery by urging her to do something experimental. The installation, a forest of full-size, standing cutouts of trees into which a viewer can step and watch videos shown on a loop, is unusual for Walker in that it incorporates moving images and steps away from the gallery walls to explore "the theatricality of space," Joo says.

The longest video is an eight-part narrative shot on 16-millimeter film, "8 Possible Beginnings: or the Creation of African-America. A Moving Picture by the Young, Self-taught, Genius of the South K.E. Walker."

"I wanted to retell the story of coming into being," Walker says of this piece, "by using a few elements of the African American cosmology -- middle passage, slavery." She also touches on the cohabitation of whites and blacks, sometimes shown dancing and having sex together. "There's something about complicity and about abuse and wishes for a kind of wholeness and then something else about the storyteller," she says.

With scratched frames and flickering illumination, the film is deliberately made to look antique. "Some of that was just fortunate processing," she says. "Most of the flaws kept in the film were genuine flaws because they looked really nice."

For the opening of the show last month, she came to Los Angeles to perform the companion shadow-figure show, moving the figures around against a backlit screen and providing a narrative with her own voice. She will repeat her performance at 6 p.m. Sunday.

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