In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, contemporary American artist Kara Walker (b. 1969)—widely recognized for her explorations of issues of race, gender, and sexuality through the eighteenth-century medium of cut-paper silhouettes—has selected a variety of objects from the Museum's collection that she juxtaposes with her own work in order to explore the banality of everyday life, water, and its impact. Taking her cue from J. M. W. Turner's Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840) and Winslow Homer's sensitive depictions of black life in nineteenth-century America, Walker's aim is to simultaneously address "the transformative effect and psychological meaning of the sea" and the role of the black figure as they are represented in art. The narrative created through the combination of these disparate images gives rise to a foreboding sense of doom.
In her work, Walker unleashes the traditionally proper, Victorian medium of silhouette directly onto the walls of the gallery, creating a theatrical space in which her unruly cut-paper characters cavort seemingly with one foot in the historical reality of slavery, and the other in a fantastical, nightmarish space that suggests the world of romantic novels.
Among those works in the Metropolitan's American art collection that Walker incorporates in the exhibition is The Gulf Stream (1899) by Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910), which was based upon studies made during Homer's two winter trips to the Bahamas in 1884–85 and 1898–99. The work depicts an African-American male adrift on his rig in stormy seas, surrounded by sharks. A rigger on the horizon of the painting perhaps denotes hope of salvation. The Deluge towards Its Close (ca. 1813) by Joshua Shaw (1777–1860) is also included.
About the Artist
Ms. Walker was born in Stockton, California. She received a BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. Her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. A 1997 recipient of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Achievement Award, Walker was the United States representative to the 2002 São Paolo Bienal in Brazil. Walker currently lives in New York, where she is on the faculty of the MFA program at Columbia University.