Presenting the Fable of a Sweet Hell peopled by Black Angels and visited by Monsters
Kara Walker was born in Stockton, California, in 1969; she lives in New York. Walker arrived in Salvador, Brazil, on July 5, 1999, with her husband, Klaus Bürgel, and her twenty-one-month-old daughter, Octavia. She overlapped with Cai Guo-Qiang, Chen Zhen, Domenico de Clario, Doris Salcedo, and Nari Ward. She worked with a group of children and teenagers from Modaxé and was assisted by the educator Ana Paula Sadeu-Bispo.
Most of the children with whom Walker worked were teenaged girls. "I learned from these children," she has stated, "that they liked and needed to see their own image and that they liked to some extent thinking about their exterior projections and interior musings." She developed a project with them in which they used their stories to make self-portraits by casting shadows of themselves onto a screen, which they traced and then cut out. Her idea for this project grew in part out of a previous body of work, in which she would make large installations of life-size silhouettes from cut black paper arranged into narratives on the wall. The narratives, many of which convey fictional scenes set in the southern United States before the Civil War, are replete with stereotypical images of white and black men and women abusing one another and attempting to subvert their status. In contrast to conventional silhouettes, Walker's typically portray scenes in which African American slaves are the victims of brutal violence, but they also portray scenes in which the slaves retaliate against their abusers. They are especially disturbing because their often comical appearance contrasts so starkly with the horrific subjects they depict.
Walker was interested in the children's images of themselves as a potential source for personal and social transformation and focused especially on their identity as young black people living in a society controlled politically and economically by a small white minority. She has noted: "I wanted them to understand how there is power in looking and power in controlling the gaze of others. I wanted them to understand that sometimes there is power in invisibility, but I think they knew this instinctively, from street life. And I wanted them to be aware of their Shadow Self (their dark side? their light side?) the imaginary self that we can call into being, that can change a life by knowing and loving. And I wanted them to know their ever-present history. I wanted them to see images of black folk in history paintings and have them recognize where we have been and reflect on where we are, and on what is different and what is not. To reflect on who did the looking and how they could change the look."
To encourage them to think about their personal relationship to these issues, Walker asked the children to keep notebooks, in which they could write about whatever they wished, and which they were obligated to share with the rest of the group only if they chose to. Their reflections in these notebooks became one of the sources for their shadow portraits. They made these portraits by tracing one another's shadows on paper and then using the sewing techniques they had acquired at Modaxé to transform the patterns into black fabric cut-outs on white fabric backgrounds. Sometimes they added to their portraits images such as arms, and in one case a baby growing in the womb, to express their inner selves.
As the children began to develop their portraits, Walker was struck by the difference between her own works, many of which are social critiques, and theirs, which had less of an edge. In fact, most of the children seemed happy just to make their own image, in spite of the social and economic difficulties they struggled with, and many times would even begin to dance and sing while they were working. While she found this strength moving, she also asked herself what effect it might have on the quest for social change, a question she was not able to answer. As she has remarked, "I wasn't there to turn them into my work or even into contemporary artists or model citizens, just to make them aware of the connection between the things they think and do. To have them know their being in the world means something, has a history and that they may have the power to make that something work on others, and to change history. Every afternoon, I would tell them to be aware of where your shadow falls, know that it is always with you—a part of you, but apart."