Welcoming Kara Walker
On November 18 Kara Walker, who received her MFA in Painting and Printmaking from RISD in 1994, visited for an intimate conversation at the RISD Museum. Dominic Molon, the Museum’s curator of contemporary art, asked Walker a dozen or so questions, nearly all proposed by RISD students. The world-renowned artist responded with wisdom, humor, and humility. Among her revelations: “The process is a wrestling match between my intellect and my hands.” “I make work in the assumption that we are all black in this together.” “Get centered with your work; it doesn’t do any good to knee-jerk react.” And “We [artists] are empathy dealers in a callous world.”
Two RISD graduate students—one recent, one current—gave Walker what she described as the best introduction she’d ever heard. Here they are.
Jagdeep Raina (MFA Painting 2016)
I remember sitting in a dimly lit lecture room on a freezing cold day in the city of London, in the southwestern Ontario region of Canada. The year was 2010, and I was 19. The class was Introduction to Art Criticism. I was in my second year of the BFA program, and up until that point, my knowledge of contemporary art was still severely limited. The canon of artists that I knew were mostly male, European, and white. I sat down at the back of the class, my laptop open to my Facebook page while I was poised to pretend to take notes. But that day, something changed. My professor began the lecture and smiled, as he pressed the projector, and onto the screen emerged a blinding, black paper cutout of a scene that sprawled the walls of a gallery. I was mesmerized and seduced by the artwork I saw. I had never seen anything like it before. I was shaken to my core. It is at that precise moment I found out about Kara Walker. Needless to say, I closed the Facebook homepage that day, and for the rest of the semester.
Kara Walker was born in 1969 in Stockton, California, moved to Atlanta, Georgia, at the age of 13, and attended the Atlanta College of Art (which is now the Savannah College of Art and Design). She received her MFA right here at RISD in 1994. The rest is history. From the MacArthur Genius Grant in 1997 to a full-scale survey in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center in 2007 titled My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, which then later travelled to Paris, New York, and Los Angeles; from the 2007 Venice Biennale to becoming a member of the American Academy of Arts and letters in 2012—these are all just snippets of a remarkable career. These milestones are important to note personally for me. The beautifully bound catalogue that emerged from her 2007 retrospective was the very first Walker book that found itself in my hands: a stunning collection of writings, numerous text pieces, and breathtaking drawings that I continue to immerse myself in, over and over again. The Biennale and the honor from the American Academy of Arts and letters is a humble reminder to the world of the importance of Walker’s work and the recognition that it deserves.
Her path to RISD influenced my own decision to come here. I remember constantly plying my professors Dennis Congdon, Holly Hughes, and Chitra Ganesh with questions about what she was like as a student and professor. I remember combing through the RISD Archives, begging Andy Martinez if I could read a copy of her thesis. I remember going through the storage of the Prints, Drawings, and Photographs collection when I was a graduate assistant at the RISD Museum, looking at her work over and over again—everything from a 2014 watercolor drawing to an etching Walker did in 1993.
It is no question that since that day in January 2010, and on this day, Kara Walker’s work has continued to heavily affect my life. From thinking about how history weaves itself in and out of the present and the future to ruminations on marginalized bodies, gender, and nostalgia to thinking about drawing beyond just paper and pencil, but as a political act of resistance and hope, these traits from my own practice no doubt continue to be informed by the influence Walker has had on me.
I remember Ms. Walker speaking in the flesh on the inauguration of RISD’s newest president, Rosanne Somerson. Standing in the back row on a rainy day inside a tent last year, I watched her, my arms clutched with four Kara Walker books, in vain hopes that she would sign them and I could meet her. While that didn’t happen, it did lead to me experiencing yet another beautiful lesson of love and hope from the artist. It’s so vital that we need artists like Kara walker, more than ever. I share with you now a quote from the day:
In an ambition or in a goal, there is an optimism, an optimism that I feel is necessary for the world, even as we may be artists who are angry and cynical and bitter about the world, and perhaps questioning and curious, that aliveness, that rage that burns within us is optimism at its best because there is a belief, a belief that you can do something, you can change the world, you can change your mind. That you can change the minds of other people, that you can change the way we see things, the way we do things, the way we make things, the way we are, the way we love, is the most important thing I can think of in the world.
This particular quote is perhaps the most meaningful for me, for it was the first time I questioned what it means to engage in an anger beyond myself. Walker then ended that quote saying that it was RISD that nurtured that feeling inside of her, that possibility. I echo her thoughts on this institution being a place that has the timeless capacity to unleash that infectious feeling inside all of us, whether one is a student, or comes back as an alumni.
Kelly Mitchell (MFA Printmaking 2017)
It took me twenty-two years to become a black artist. To clarify, I have almost always identified as both an artist and black. However, these identities lived in different corners of my mind and despite their best efforts I didn’t allow their magnetic relationship to flourish. And, if I am being honest I was scared and more than anything, tired—of explaining, justifying, and defending my very existence. I succumbed to a cruel lie that black art by black artists does not matter. However, fear and exhaustion, although often steadfast, they wane. So, you rest, you recover, you rise. In this cycle of self-regeneration exploration is key, looking to the work of others to contextualize the ideas that have yet to make it out of the sketchbook. It was not long before Kara Walker’s work struck me at every turn; the nuance of straddling exploitation, humor, and pain, the threat of perpetuating stigmas one desires to prevent, the genius of using beauty to present true horrors, the power of creating a narrative and inviting the audience to attend, the strength to keep going when others have said you have gone far enough.
Kara Walker’s work is poignant and relevant and unabridged. As artists and a collective society, we need to talk about slavery, about sexuality, about blackness. It is essential we engage these ideas as a living history. The ongoing legacy of slavery—particularly the systems of oppression, like mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and a racialized education gap—are foundational in constructing and maintaining a system of institutionalized racism that people of color must face every single day. To understand why black teenagers and children are shot disproportionally by the police, to understand why New York City, the world’s creative and cultural capital, has the one of the most segregated school systems in the country, to understand how a white nationalist is the Chief Strategist to a President-Elect who was sued for not allowing people of color to inhabit his apartment buildings. To understand we must examine, like Ms. Walker does, the historicized intersection of race, gender, class, and sexuality within the black community and our world.
So as students in a community like RISD that fosters action-based optimism in the face of outrage, I implore you to use artists like Kara Walker as both reference and resource. I urge you to allow this conversation to be either the beginning or the continuation of your relationship with Ms. Walker’s prolific work. Take advantage of what is in your own backyard and stop by the RISD Museum’s Prints, Drawings and Photographs department during open hours to instigate a personal relationship with work that can provide a bridge to creating a community of artists, like Ms. Walker, who willfully and boldly deal in unyielding truths that reverberate throughout the core of our community. Now please join me in welcoming Kara Walker.