The National Gallery's 2022 Annual Lecture was presented with the support of the Embassy of the United States of America in Australia.
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DR NICK MITZEVICH: Welcome to the National Gallery of Australia's Annual Lecture. I'm speaking today from our Kara Walker exhibition, which opened in August. I acknowledge and pay my respects to the traditional owners of the Kamberri region known today as Canberra, the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri Peoples and all First Nations people across Australia. We recognise their continuing connection to country and culture and pay our respects to their elders, leaders and artists past, present and emerging.
The Gallery's Annual Lecture invites leading thinkers to present ideas in the field of art and art history. Past speakers include curator, writer and artist John Mundine, who worked with the Ramingining artists of Central Arnhem Land to create one of Australia's most significant works of art, The Aboriginal Memorial. This year's Annual Lecture is presented as a conversation between leading African-American artist Kara Walker and Bundjalung and Kullilli journalist Daniel Browning, the host of ABC's The Art Show on Radio National.
Together, they discuss Kara's practice and how her work resonates globally, working with themes of race, gender and sexuality. The conversation also covers two recent acquisitions, which are included in our Kara Walker exhibition. This is the first major exhibition of Kara's work in Australia. Before I hand over to Kara and Daniel, I'd like to thank the Embassy of the United States of America in Australia for supporting this year's Annual Lecture, which is part of our 40th anniversary program.
And thank you to Kara and Daniel for having this important conversation. The Gallery's Kara Walker exhibition is on display until the 5th of February, and I hope you will have an opportunity to see it in person. Thank you.
DANIEL BROWNING: Hello and welcome to the National Gallery of Australia's Annual Lecture. My name is Daniel Browning, I'm the host of The Art Show on ABC RN. I'm also the ABC's editor of Indigenous Radio. So today the Annual Lecture is not so much a lecture, it's a conversation between the artist Kara Walker and myself. And over the next hour we will explore two acquisitions by the NGA and the first monographic exhibition of her work here in Australia.
Project 2: Kara Walker draws upon two decades of practice by one of North America's most influential contemporary artists. The exhibition explores complex narratives of race, gender and sexuality that run through Walker's signature black and white imagery. Now coming to fame in the mid nineties, Walker is internationally recognised for her graphically striking and wryly humorous representations of the racist imagery, systems of power and harrowing stories that accompany colonisation as it emerged in the United States from the time of slavery. I would like to now self describe. My name is Daniel Browning. I'm wearing a black leather jacket with a grey hoodie. I'm wearing glasses and olive green pants with black boots. So, Kara, I'd like to invite you to self describe as briefly or as voluminously as you like.
KARA WALKER: I'm Kara Walker, I have short, cropped, salt and pepper hair and I'm wearing a black sleeveless dress.
DANIEL: Thanks so much, Kara, and welcome to the NGA Annual Lecture and a conversation with me about a whole range of things. Now, a sweeping question to start with, how would you characterise your work in terms of form and subject matter to a viewer who perhaps isn't familiar with it or hasn't seen your practice evolve over the years?
KARA: Oh, I've been so coy about describing my work out loud to people over the years. It's an attempt at using a drawing, cut out, film on a range of different practices that kind of stems out of an interest in the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are as a people, let's say as a person, myself, an African-American woman, in a particular period of time. And how I and we got to be here. I think that my work draws on a lot of pre-existing narratives of identity formation and looks at the sort of mythologies and stereotypes within those and searches, sometimes vainly for some kernel of truth or understanding or something like that.
DANIEL: I love this idea that the work is doing something. It's not for play. It's not nostalgia, it's not any of those things. It's actually, there is there is a sense that you are motivated and driven to do this in order to I guess, undermine or critique or expose those mythologies you talk about.
KARA: Right, I guess. And also just understand in a way, like how these, I guess I'm still being a little bit vague and general right now. But I think as a young artist in particular, trying to understand how systems of power came to kind of affect not just my worldview, but the worldview people had around me and to sort of look at those competing dynamics and because I had a painting practice I wanted to begin, you know, exploring these topics through a painting practice, and I sort of head butted against a narrative of art histories of racism within the kind of art historical context.
DANIEL: Now, the acquisition by the NGA of these two works is a major coup for the institution. How do you think some of the global questions that your work speaks to and the contemporaneity of them? How do you think it translates in parts of the world where you have exhibited, perhaps outside of America. I'm interested in how you see your work and the way it's been received over the years.
KARA: I think it depends on where we're talking. I mean I think, I've never travelled to Australia, but it's a country that has, part of the colonialist project, the British colonial project. And I think that a lot of the countries that are, including not just America and the Americas, but who are really exploring their relationship to postcolonial critique, are really invested in the work in a way that's different than, different now really than it was in the nineties, to be honest, because I think that when I started out there was a kind of a glib misunderstanding that I was talking about something that had to do with a black problem or an American problem.
But the way that the work is read, I think is a little bit different from place to place. I think that the wrong headedness sometimes the humour, the tripping over different tropes and sort of mixing and merging and blending and you know, kind of exploding power dynamics complicates things in a way that might be, I imagine can be challenging, but I'm not really sure for folks who are really at the cusp of critiquing their relationship to colonialism.
I think that my work comes out of a, maybe a disillusionment with a certain critique that I was born into, in this, you know, late sixties and seventies. So my generation in the States was a kind of part of an experiment of desegregation and multiculturalism and so my experience is really informed by this sort of two pronged attempt to sort of right the wrongs of history and to discover that the wrongs of history are still very, very present.
DANIEL: And what I love about your work, and I think the mistake that people make in when they look at it, is to imagine that these tropes exist only in the past. I mean, I think I understand that you make this work because these tropes and their aftereffects and the aftereffect of institutionalised racism and slavery for many centuries is constantly playing out.
KARA: Right? Well, I think that in a way, that's the trouble. And the trouble with being an artist, in a way, is that the stories, the images, the sort of mythologies that exist, that were created, you know, at the expense of other human beings. And I'm not just talking about fictions, but also narratives, narratives written by formerly enslaved people.
You know, all of these things join into this big pot of cultural influence, big reservoir of information and feeling. And this is like the nourishment in a way that an artist can draw from. But the minute you draw from it, you know, you start stirring the pot literally. And that's, it's just a strange, paradoxical problem or even a trap to find oneself in. Because yes, I mean, the actualities of, you know, racism, racist behavior, you know, racist killings, you know, violence against black bodies in particular is still very, very real. And because we live in this, the culture that we live in, we are more adept at looking for solutions, solving the problem that is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of the culture. And you kind of have to undo the culture in order to fix the problem. And there's a lot of people who don't like undoing things, you know. Well, a lot of trauma that comes in breaking apart systems of power. Yeah.
DANIEL: Absolutely. And, you know, I guess we have to face the fact that the world is implicated in slavery. I mean, just thinking about a grain of sugar and the kind of havoc that wrought on the world.And the inherited wealth of, you know, the ruling classes, still very much a real thing in places like the UK and I would imagine in the US and you know, trying to understand and explore the deep heritages and lineages and slavery.
KARA: I think, I guess, you know, where some of the paradoxical stuff again like talking about, like going into this reservoir of information, not just information, it's the wrong word, but this wealth of material that exists with each one of these power institutions, is you know, I mean, I feel like part of the project and the problem of my work and maybe the problem of receiving the work is that it kind of exposes us to our culpability in some ways, even as people of colour of like, you know, eating some sugar, you know, or, you know, like you know, or participating in some way. You know. Going to Buckingham Palace or whatever. Like looking at the emblems, even as you're critiquing the emblems of power, you know, sort of being a little bit in awe of like the God awful audacity of it, you know. The grandiloquent show-off-iness of it and, you know, and what it all represents and what bodies are sort of buried beneath the statuary, you know, that are hidden now.
DANIEL: You know, that wholesale trade in human life that lasted for centuries, the European powers who all participated or benefited directly or indirectly. Now I want to talk a little bit more about how you see the kind of after images or the mirrors, the reverberations in daily life for black people in settler colonial states. And even in the mothership of imperialism in the UK, throughout the world in fact. I want to understand how you, do you navigate that history, that turbulence through the work. I mean, you talk about it as an attempt to unpack and explore those, the two forces, you know, the multiculturalism and desegregation that you grew up with, this experiment and also the actual legacy of history itself.
KARA: Right. I mean, I think that the, if I didn't have artwork to do, I don't know exactly what I would do. I think because of the, I mean, in a way, it's I'm going to say complexity, but it's very simple. On the one hand, you know, that wrong is wrong.
But I think that where, when it comes to sort of thinking about being an artist, for instance, you know, in entering automatically into this kind of, I entered, let's say, automatically into a very Western tradition of art making without really realising it at the time. So the critiques that are sort of embedded in the physical form of my work are also reflective of this conflict I have of wanting to be an artist in this Western tradition and not really being able to fully embrace that because of the legacies of exclusion that are present within and the sort of need to kind of navigate this very thorny, murderous terrain with a kind of an eye towards the, you know, the beauty of Gauguin, for instance. And you know, and a jaundiced view of the whole enterprise, the whole art making enterprise, you know, and I think giving it up isn't an option. So what's the way through? You know, how do we find solutions to the problem of wanting to explore, you know, these global histories, art histories, you know, personal histories.
I mean, for instance, not to sort of get too anecdotal, but I was looking at ancestry.com, you know, looking up my family tree and trying to find some information. I had participated in a program a little while back that looked deeper into my family's history. So I got more information than I had been able to find on my own, but I wanted to just see if I could get a little bit further because, you know, it's a generation or two and then it's wilderness for a lot of us, people of colour in America, especially when slavery is involved. So there's a family legacy of mulatto, a great grandfather, on my mother's side and a lot of sort of speculation about his, you know, his parentage and some of that came to light in the program that I watched.
DANIEL: I mean, and that's the thing, these histories, we can't, if you're a person of colour or a person of your background, or my background as an Indigenous Aboriginal man and also the descendant of South Sea Islanders who were forced to work in the cane fields here in Australia, you can't, it's written in your body. It's impossible to kind of get up and walk away or discard that as much as you may want to. We kind of have to, we don't perform this, but it is part of our lives, right?
KARA: We can pick and choose in different ways, right?
DANIEL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
KARA: Explore, expose or deny or reject.
DANIEL: Yeah. There's very many different ways to live this life. I mean, and you've obviously kind of gone on a journey and as many of us do, trying to understand the past and how it reverberates in the present. But how have you, how would you characterise that journey? I mean, growing up in that kind of desegregated world that was trying to pretend like there was no differences and everything was flat and we were all equal, to now, to where we are now.
KARA: Well, I think my experience was very starkly bifurcated by a move which I've talked about in the past. But my childhood was spent on the West Coast here in California, which I think looking back, had a kind of a progressive, rosy outlook. So despite the fact that I was bussed to a new school, many of my friends came from a range of ethnicities, ethnic backgrounds, spoke a range of different languages in their own home, we all came together as as friends and as equals in school. And so it really wasn't something that I thought about. Race wasn't something that I thought about until we moved to Georgia, which is sort of the ancestral homeland of my parents families down in the south. And I think a lot of my thinking around race and these issues was informed partly by that move and partly by my ingrained childhood stereotype of what that move would mean, which is to say I had no connection really to the family in the South whatsoever, nor a connection to what it would be like to move there.
But I had a deep fear and nightmares about what it meant. And so I think that there's something really, you know, like, what would I have received, you know, on the West Coast about Southern life. It's the same information that everyone else in the world received about Southern life based on the news, the civil rights campaigns, the, Gone With the Wind and the Song of the South and the sort of mythological narrative of the sunny South with its happy slaves and its colourful Southern belles.
That kind of schism was present just in culturally, I think it was present for a lot of people. So I already had an image of what I was entering into before I had set foot in a place. I had already had a mythology of the South before I had entered into an actuality of the South. And what I encountered was a very stark black and white division in, you know, in Atlanta at the time, in the early eighties.
But I also felt like there were so many limited prospects, you know, like I just felt like I suddenly entered into a world of reduced prospects as an African-American youth. That you had to keep to your own and stay protected. And those people who I might have ordinarily considered or counted as among the friend group were suspect and prove themselves sometimes to be suspect and dangerous.
I think that having a worldview, a sunny worldview, shattered informed my practice. And I think that the other thing that is key, I guess, in the look of my work is retaining the sunny worldview despite it. The cartoonish, the jocular, the, you know, puppetry, the wilful optimism.
DANIEL: And I love that you've played regardless of whatever criticism you might have received about these kind of reiterations of tropes and stereotypes. You have continued to play with them and to draw out the humour and to pose questions that make us think about all kinds of relationships. You know, race, gender, our relationship with history.
KARA: Yeah, I think in some regards I'm also a little bit inspired by, I'm going to get the name wrong, but there's a Greek and Turkish character, trickster character, whose name my name is part of, Karagz, is I think is his name, but I will have to look him up. He's also appears in shadow puppet form very often as a trickster figure.
And I feel like, you know, globally there are oral histories and trickster figures who figure prominently and they sit outside of, within and outside of any given culture. And I find that for me, in some ways, these caricatured figures occupy that space. And particularly in American culture, in the late eighties, there was a lot of collecting, a lot of African-Americans started collecting these sort of black collectibles. So there was a conversation back then about what these stereotypical objects mean, what it means to have them in your home, what it means to take them out of circulation or whatever they happened to mean when they were trafficked among mainly white people. And so it's a curious, it's just a curious thing to wonder why so many you know, why so many of these figurines were necessary to, you know, minstrel figures and, you know, postcards and cartoons and photographs.
And, you know, why was this kind of recitation of brutality so necessary in every format if not to in some way, not just undermine the people depicted, but provide some kind of psychic outlet for the dark unknowns of the ruling class or the darkness they refuse to acknowledge?
DANIEL: Absolutely. I mean, and there are resonances here with you know, contemporary artists who accumulate what we call Aboriginality. These, I guess racist depictions of Aboriginal people which were plaster statues, ashtrays, black velvet paintings. We were always depicted in these, I mean these are works of the imagination. Of course they are underwritten by, you know, racist mythology and white supremacy.
But, you know, a lot of the Aboriginal artists working with these materials or objects kind of have a fondness for them and talk about rescuing them when they find them in junk shops and then recontextualising them. I mean, do you have that kind of relationship with the kind of tropes that you use in your work?
KARA: I think so. I think I do. When you make an image with a face on it, whatever that thing happens to be, it becomes something. You as a human cannot help but give life to it. So I think that it does become important as a kind of, you know, spiritual guide to like look at these things and you know, consider the object. I think before I was interested in the sort of racist objects, I was interested in just those household objects, just as they exist in people's lives.
Because I did wonder from an early age what they were meant to do, you know, like what role were they meant to fulfill? And so I think I had already been projecting myself into these, into any kind of random, you know, mantelpiece objects, you know, their forgotten status and giving them something.
DANIEL: Now, in terms of the form of your work, I mean, you're very hard to kind of and and I sensed you struggling with that question to characterise your work and its subject matter over a very long period. But you know, you obviously started out with the silhouettes, these extraordinary paper cuts often life size, sort of room. And then, you know, your painting of course, your painting is very, very important.
Is there one medium which particularly draws you or do you just latch onto that thing that is the best way to express the idea that you're having at that moment.
KARA: I think these days it's really about finding the way to express the idea, which also means that I wind up going further afield than what I'm actually capable of doing. I think there's a little something to like being unmoored that I both hate and need in my practice. So I'm sort of like untether myself from what's comfortable because it should never be comfortable doing the work. And so as a result, I have a hard time enjoying doing my work, but I think with the, sort of, I exaggerate. But the gist of it is that I sort of abandoned strict painting as a student and found a way to make meaning I guess. Make these problems that I was trying to wrestle with make sense through the cut outs. And the only reason that I speak about the cut outs in the past tense, not that I'm really done with it, is that I had such a reckoning with being known as the silhouette artist.
And I think it's a little bit the refusal to have the reception or the idea around what this work is lose its impact or something or become decorative. You know, it was decorative against decoration initially. So I think that trying to find ways to make, again to make meaning but it keeps putting me into other modes.
The first moment actually was the piece Testimony that the museum acquired, just because I knew that I, a lateral transition to moving images, moving shadow puppetry made the most sense, but it took me a couple of beats before I knew how to just jump into it and do it as quickly and as rudimentary as possible. Because I think it just had to be done, you know, like I just have to do it.
DANIEL: And I really love that work. And, you know, I laugh out loud. I'm stirred by it. I'm provoked. And it makes me think much more deeply about art, power, relationships on very many levels, not just historically. It's also, as I say, the reverberations are with us today. They're in the present. They're in our interpersonal relationships and the contemporaneous but that move to shadowplay and turning and animating those cut outs, it was an obvious move I suppose. But you had never, in the way silhouettes work they don't have to move. They don't have to be shadow play.
KARA: They could be. I mean I think initially, you know, I was doing a lot of reading and, you know, sort of research on that format. And so it made, you know, I kept running across like Lotte Reiniger and other sort of silhouette cutters who made animations. And I thought, well, of course I could and I should and I might, but the only thing that was really holding me back was having this painting practice that I never explored. I never picked up a camera, you know, like that was really the gist of it.
DANIEL: Did you make another film where you kind of employed the shadow, where you animated the cutouts?
KARA: Yeah, Testimony was really the first one. And then each successive one, I tried to get a little bit more technically advanced, very slightly. So the second film I made a couple of years later was Eight Possible Beginnings or the History of African-America. And that was kind of like the shadow play in eight acts or something like that, loosely based around Walt Disney's Song of the South, slash the Uncle Remus tales that Joel Chandler Harris wrote and that kind of storyteller. The idea of becoming a storyteller, I guess, or the idea of myself being a storyteller. So I sort of- and I guess I am present in all of these films to some extent, you know, because my hands are, you know, in the frame, my face is in the frame. There's sort of no hiding because it is, again, about this power dynamic. So, you know, who is who is the master here? Who is being made to do my bidding? And yeah, just to kind of acknowledge that, I guess, or to show that up as one of the problematics.
DANIEL: In one way, we all we are all under pressure to be something if we're not from the dominant culture or the dominant class. There are always projections that we are subject to, no matter how we try to free ourselves of those. And the artist, I guess, get short shrift. They get projected onto as well.
Not nearly as damaging, though, I guess is some of those kind of racist constructions of identity. How free do you think, how freeing has your art been for you personally in trying to just be a human being living in the world isn't that isn't someone else's projection?
KARA: This is that's a tricky question. That's interesting. Yeah.
DANIEL: Well, I mean, I just, it's because I see your work as a navigation through that, trying to understand how you free oneself from, you know, from all these things that constrict you.
KARA: Right? You could see the comedy of it, right? It's like untangling a sweater and getting tangled up in the threads. It's a little bit like that all the time. I don't have the sweater anymore, but I do have all of the strings. I think that it's on the one hand, absolutely liberating, right? Like to be able to even establish a practice that I, you know, have to entrust myself with, to some extent and have, you know, people want to see it. And this is a privilege that I don't really take for granted. I mean, sometimes I do. Sometimes, you know, sometimes.
DANIEL: You're a trickster, your trickster, that's what you do. You know, like there's, you know.
KARA: We all complain, but not too much. And I think that the, that reality, you know, that I can do my work and answer these questions and have that resonate. And, you know, listen, sometimes people show up to my shows who've never been to an art show. And that is important to me. And it's a lot of, I feel like I have to explain even more because it's like, oh, don't look at this first. Like there's some, you know, some real artists, but, you know, responsible African-American artists or people of colour that you should look at first and then look at all these things. So I kind of feel like a responsibility in that way. But that, and then on the other hand, there's the feeling that I'm often fighting against type or fighting against stereotype or fighting against being reduced to being a role model, which is a funny thing to fight against because I think it's one of the goals people might have, is to, you know, have an effect.
But I think that in some way maybe some of my, I'm just thinking out loud, but I think some of my ideas of what freedom as an artist looks like, it really includes a kind of freedom from all of those concerns. You know, which is really a model that is the Western art historical model that we were talking about earlier that I was trying to, trying to critique, you know. I should just be on my own in the desert, not worrying what people are doing outside of my particular bubble. But it becomes challenging to exist like that. I can't do it for long.
DANIEL: Now I'd like to draw out a quote of yours. You say that "heroes are not completely pure and villains are not purely evil. I'm interested in the continuity of conflict, the creation of racist narratives or nationalist narratives, or whatever narratives people use to construct a group identity and to keep themselves whole." And we deploy these narratives almost in an unthinking way every single day. What are the stories you think Americans tell themselves to keep themselves whole, as it were?
KARA: We tell ourselves that we're good people all the time, that we're, you know, we're freedom loving people. And that freedom is a thing that we can really, you just say the word and we know what that means. And there's no questioning about what, you know, it's such a shorthand term that kind of means barbecue. I'm not really sure what it means. And I think that it's wonderfully reassuring to have all the signs and symbols, you know, to drape oneself in flags and, you know, parade around, you know, and stage camaraderie insurrections.
But it's also, I just feel like there would be, I kind of feel like I just want all of this country to go to therapy for like a big, a big group therapy. But I also, in a way, feel like we're in it, you know, like this moment, this last couple of years in particular, with, since maybe 2015, after Dylann Roof went on his killing rampage and we started really talking about Confederate memorabilia, Confederate monuments, this kind of relics from, you know, 150 years ago. Like, why are they still 170 years ago? Why are they still present in our -
DANIEL: Stalking us in the present?
KARA: Yeah. Yeah. And, and I know that people have been talking about them in the past, but they really got a full head of steam, you know, just in the last seven years to actually remove these monuments, to really question them. And I feel like that will towards therapy that I joke about is kind of happening in the face of, and it's happening with the kind of chaos and violence that I guess is inherent in my work.
You know, I mean, I think that the dismantling of sort of racist ideologies engenders a kind of chaos and, you know, sort of freefall of multiple people's identities, identity formations. And it hasn't you know, it hasn't, we're not done. You know, it hasn't settled into some kind of workable format, you know, where we can live together.
DANIEL: Yeah. That's part of the contemporaneity of the kind of antebellum America that your work often describes. You're not simply representing a vanished world or, you know, just quoting images that you wanted to breathe or resuscitate and put back into popular culture. It's not a nostalgia project. I think people, perhaps outside of America may not understand the humour and the kind of the wit and sarcasm in the work. So I really wanted this lecture to be a way to give people a kind of, a cue into understanding what was actually happening here. It's very subversive. I think the imagery is entirely subversive and fun and cheeky and critical and it works on very many different levels.
KARA: I think, yeah, I think that these days I'm really trying to veer away from bitterness. Because I think the yeah. When the, when the scales tip too far in one direction, it gets hard to be funny, but I guess a lot of comedians face that problem as well. Just looking for the way up from what seems sometimes like doom. I'm not to say that it's purely hopeless or anything. You know, that one thing that I can sort of keep doing is trying to make work that kind of holds one's gaze for a while, even if it's to just wonder, what is this about again? You know. Just, so it's not so much that it's a nostalgia campaign at all. But there's a, I think that there's a kind of a way of utilising what looks to be nostalgia, to hold the attention of the viewer, who might rather turn away from the unpleasant subject.
DANIEL: Now, the caricature of black bodies throughout history in literary and popular tropes. I'm thinking of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, the Aunt Jemima trope. They're relics in many ways. And figure in your artwork in the silhouettes, but also in a very large, very large sphinx-like sculpture, made partly from sugar. It was a foam structure overlaid with I think 40 tonnes of cast sugar. A work called, it was a work in an exhibition called The Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby at The Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn in 2014. It was the largest public artwork at the time. I think the largest public artwork ever made or ever erected in New York City.
KARA: Possibly. I don't know the stats of it. Certainly the largest public artwork I ever made.
DANIEL: Give me a sense of the scale.
KARA: Yeah, the scale. I think it was a, it's been a few years now, but I think it was about 33 feet high and maybe 75 feet long in a gigantic warehouse space that was about to be demolished. So actually it was at a scale that was both gargantuan when you approached it. But if you entered into the building to a designated spot, you could easily miss it for a moment just by looking around at the you know, at the space. What is this, you know, terrible smell is a very pungent molasses odour left over from from its days as working sugar plant and then sort of come upon this piece that was much larger than life.
DANIEL: And I think, you know, that kind of public artwork was there. Was there a sense, too, that you were reaching a new audience, or did you get a sense of it's a kind of enormous potential if you hadn't before? I mean, it obviously was seen by very many people because of its kind of sensational qualities.
KARA: Yeah, it was definitely a yeah, I knew I was reaching a larger, different audience. I think I had to think about my work in a different way, somewhat different way. And I think I still wound up feeling true to my own process and project in that it's very similar to the cut paper pieces in some ways and in its sort of impact or effect that it sort of collapses multiple histories and narratives into a body, you know, and into, you know, a single body.
And then there were multiple sort of figurine attendants that were more at a human scale. It had, you know, the element of kitsch, the sort of element of surprise. You know, it was very physical and very physically kind of repulsive and attractive, big bosom and, you know, large assed, you know, very sort of present labia at the back on the back end.
If you got to the back end, it was spectacular. It was unexpected. I guess it raised a lot of hackles, but I think a lot of questions also around sugar and our ingesting of this. Basically the sugar narrative, what I was thinking is that we've been ingesting for, you know, 500 years like a narrative that's not just about slavery, but is also about America. It's about the Americas. It's about the transition from Europe to, you know, the colonisation of the Americas and the opening up of, you know, that trade in trafficking in African and indigenous bodies to produce this particular product that is global in its scope. And it's so desirable and so unquestioningly a part of our lives. I don't try to be a populist artist, but I think that there's an element that's just kind of like, oh, the Sphinx. Like I was like, oh, like, what is a big thing that people want to see? No, you know, what is. A wonder of the world? Because I really thought, well, sugar is a wonder of the world. You know, there's nothing particularly natural about it. You know, how it comes into being is a whole long process.
DANIEL: Now, the central work in that show, you know, an oversexed mammy in a kerchief, you know, this is a trope that you have to kind of re-articulate in your work. And I always think there's a tension and a risk in reproducing any stereotype, even to critique them as you do. But you say that when you're accused of doing it for some kind of sensationalist or I guess, populist effect, that it reveals more about them, let's call them the critics, than it does about the work itself.
KARA: Well, I think a lot of times in the act of critique, not always, but certainly with my you know, because I think my works are sort of big and histrionic in some ways it elicits big and histrionic responses. And so not always, but certainly it's interesting in the early days to see the ways in which the work was ascribed back to my body or, you know, I was sort of spoken about in the terms that I had employed as a critique. I think that interesting conversations can be had about what it means to be looking at these things or what it is to, you know, think about what is happening in one's own body when one's looking at an artwork.
Because I think that's a part of it, is that there's something very physical in it because the work is always, for the most part, figurative, except for some texts based pieces I have. There's a kind of a jarring, jittery quality, I think that is hard to discuss or explore with people because it is so intimate in a way.
You're asking, I'm entrusting something to a viewer that is maybe untoward in a way, like, let's think about this thing. I actually don't want to think about it either, but let's think about this thing together.
DANIEL: As I mentioned, you know, there's a reckoning here too in Australia with that legacy of slavery enabled by the racist mythology of white supremacy. You know, Indigenous people kept poor, farmed out for rations with low wages in the pastoral industries and domestic servitude up until the 1960s and South Sea Islanders were imported and traded by private companies to slave in the cane fields, indentured to white employers for very minimal pay.
As the embodiment of that history, I have to deal with it. We can't pretend these things don't exist because they leave scars. And if they're not scars, it is not as if I'm kind of performing my trauma every single day for someone else's, you know, to be observed by someone else. But it is something I can't walk away from.
You know, the Martinique philosopher Édouard Glissant talks about this right to be opaque and to not be identified always as something or differentiated as other. I mean, I don't know if you know anything about Glissant but this idea that you should be unknowable and that you don't have to be someone else's projection.
KARA: Yeah, it just touches on a particular kind of psychological state that I have been in recently, but also maybe my whole life, which is along the lines of being somewhat hard to read. And then making all of this, making all of these efforts, doing lots of writing, doing lots of art making, visual imagery to sort of help a read happen and then finding that again, I have muddied the waters completely and created another layer of opacity in that in that ever present.
And I think maybe that that one of the problems not just, you know, finding safety in opacity, is just like there's so much of a culture of being open. I mean, being open and transparent or and that can be somewhat debilitating as well. Being seen, being known, being making oneself heard, making oneself understood, and then finding that, you know, even in the course of making myself understood, I find other complications that might need clarification but can't be clarified. And so, you know, it's kind of like this interesting endless spiral of inept storytelling or something.
DANIEL: I like this idea of just refusal. I'm not playing the game and I think I've read parts, you know, parts of your, you know, when you're kind of told you need to be something or do something, you talk about the role model and fearing ever being someone as a role model and that kind of obligation, you know, that that's all this project onto us.
If we inhabit this space as people who aren't people who aren't white essentially, that kind of responsibility you know, I love it when I hear you kind of crack and go, I'm not doing that. I'm not playing that game. I'm you know, this has got nothing to do with you. You don't need to know what my work's about. You're not reading me very well today.
KARA: I know. Well, it's very, very tricky. There's definitely a lot of schoolchildren learning about the artist. And so there's this kind of one entity over here, the role model who is black and the woman and making something in the public sphere. And then there's, you know, if a few Xed out versions of my work.
It's a few sort of blots of black behind me that suggests cut paper silhouettes. But and then there's, you know, and then the reality is, you know, the disclaimer at the front of my show saying, you know, sensitive, sensitive material, you know, consider whether you want to or whether you want your children to take a look at this work. And, you know, this is I mean, I guess, yeah, to be opaque or to be constantly changing or many things, to be many things at once.
DANIEL: Now, when you imagine a viewer do you think of a particular individual, someone, is there someone that can read the work who has to have certain kind of cultural information. Do you consciously make work, I guess, for other Americans or for those people who have a share in what America came to be?
KARA: I don't know. I mean, I think initially maybe I had a very specific image in mind and that was an image from a postcard from the 19th century of this little black girl with a, you know, sort of nappy hair and rags. And she's holding a big paper fan. And this was something that was given to me when I still lived in Atlanta.
And I still have that postcard on my wall. But it's a very, it's a very strange image to have on a postcard. It's a photograph. It says, it has a message underneath. It says "some class" and it's like double entendre, you know, kind of but also very kind of sexualised representation of this child who is actually and also a real person who's unknown and unnamed. And this image sort of exists over a century. And I thought this is maybe for her.
Again, it's a little bit like looking into an image, the face of an image, the face of a, or the face of an object, perhaps, and projecting. I think that if there's an audience in mind, it has also changed and shifted over my period of working since I'm getting up there in age. I do think with the public projects that I've done since 2014, there's a little bit of a more amorphous view of, there's several tiers, let's say, of who may be looking at the work. And it sort of includes a very frightening mass of, you know, everybody who's on the Internet.
DANIEL: Yeah. I mean.
KARA: Because the work is photographable, shareable and hashtagable. And so all of that has sort of transpired in the last decade of my working. And that has changed, I think, the way that I, not so much the way that I work or make my work, but it definitely changes the way I think the work might be seen once it's done.
DANIEL: Were you surprised when the National Gallery acquired these works? I mean, it is not as if you have had a long relationship with the Gallery or with Australia even, were you a bit surprised?
KARA: Pleased for sure, yeah. And especially the four part drawing. I'm glad that I found a good home. I feel like that's a, that's a funny one. Funny in a lot of ways. Just an unusual drawing, sort of a large piece that was both a drawing and a preparatory, and I say preparatory not for the final work, but definitely part of my process of finding my way into what I'm thinking about.
What's the idea, what are the ideas that I'm trying to trying to work with? And so the woman praying for some guidance was also me. To some extent praying for some guidance on how to get through, how to get through a project. And so it needs a kind of a museum-like home and in some regards it does her good.
DANIEL: That's the work You're About to Change from 2019. There's a figure, Your World Is About to Change, a figure, this ship and then its like she's landed somewhere, she's arrived.
KARA: Well, I feel like the ship is about to arrive on her on her doorstep.
DANIEL: I totally misread.
KARA: Well, I mean, that was my reading of it. Really like she's saying, okay, what's happening here? What is this thing that's coming towards? And like, your world is about to change and some of the spirits are like, hey, maybe you just see what they want.
Which is, of course, the big nightmare of, you know, the colonised people of the world. It's like, hey, this. Maybe they just want to trade. They're just visiting. They're just visiting the same. Yeah. They'll, they'll be on their way soon. Yeah.
DANIEL: So I love these kind of moments of contact. In fact, I just written a play myself about this moment of contact between my ancestors and the ship that passed the coast of Australia. We go back to these moments and they inspire us and they make us think about who we are, why we're here. And I think these are questions that we deeply explore because they're part of us.
I keep going back to this, but I'm just really interested in, we don't have the freedom and the luxury of kind of just making art for its own sake.
KARA: And trying.
DANIEL: And talking about things. Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. We'll get there. We'll get there. We'll get there. We're not there quite yet in global history. But do you kind of long for a time where you are free to create works? The imagination that I'm tethered to a past.
KARA: Yeah I sometimes I try it but it doesn't feel- it doesn't feel right. I can't say it doesn't feel authentic or it feels like I'm avoiding something or I'm yeah. So it's a little bit like, yeah, I could, I could do it, but why you know, I mean, so once you know something, it's hard to, to not know it.
But there again, there's ways to find moments of maybe beauty or, you know, little unexpected twists that don't add anything particular to the historical or the political, but are simply there as a part of the piece to be felt, enjoyed, seen you know, for their own sake, a little a little flower or cotton ball that doesn't have to look like that, you know, a nipple, you know.
DANIEL: Well, Kara, it's been an absolute pleasure to kind of explore the work with you. Is there anything that you feel like I haven’t asked?
KARA: You asked so many good things.
DANIEL: Kind of. I just really love your work and I love this irony and the sense of play and this idea that we don't have to be serious all the time and that we're not embodying trauma every single way, performing trauma for other people gives your work. Gives me a sense of freedom.
KARA: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
DANIEL: Thank you, Kara. And Project 2: Kara Walker is on display at the National Gallery of Australia until the 5th of February 2023.