Kara Walker with her art installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn in 2014.
Kara Walker with her art installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn in 2014.Credit…Abe Frajndlich for The New York Times

By Blake Gopnik

  • Aug. 16, 2017

“I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice,’ or worse, ‘being a role model,’ Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche.” Those words come at the beginning of an artist’s statement making a splash on the internet since Tuesday afternoon, when it was released by Kara Walker — who, it so happens, has long been heralded as one of the most prominent and talented black female artists, praised for making work about her race and gender.

The statement was published in a news release announcing Ms. Walker’s big fall show, opening Sept. 7 at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., the New York gallery that has represented the artist for years.

According to Ms. Walker’s assistant, Allison Calhoun, reached by phone on Wednesday, for months the gallery had been asking for a few words from Ms. Walker, to use as the raw material for a standard news release on her show. But Ms. Walker had been far too busy making work to think about writing. (She was still finishing paintings this week, and wasn’t taking any calls.) Last weekend, however, confronted with the spectacle of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and of President Trump’s first reaction to it, Ms. Walker sat down and her statement poured out. The gallery’s staff had it by Sunday evening; despite its unorthodox content, they released it almost unchanged, said Scott Briscoe, a gallery associate.

Ms. Walker’s words acknowledge that her right and capacity “to live in this Godforsaken country as a (proudly) raced and (urgently) gendered person is under threat by random groups of white (male) supremacist goons.” They also express frustration at the idea that she, a mere artist, might have answers for the urgent questions facing us at this moment in history.

“I roll my eyes, fold my arms, and wait,” Ms. Walker writes, ending with the simple declaration that “this is a show of works on paper and on linen, drawn and collaged using ink, blade, glue and oil stick.” It is not “exhaustive, activist or comprehensive in any way.”

ImageKara Walker’s “Christ’s Entry into Journalism, 2017,” Sumi ink and collage on paper, from a new show of work opening Sept. 7 at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.Credit…Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Ms. Walker’s statement reflects a tight corner that she has been stuck in from the start of her career: She knows that her focus on America’s racist past will automatically win her the hatred of anyone who doubts the historic oppression of blacks; she also has firsthand experience of the pans her work has received from black activists, who feel that its complexities and ironies muddle racial issues that need to be treated as pointedly as possible.

In the shadow of Charlottesville, viewers are more likely than ever to come to Ms. Walker’s fall show expecting answers. Her statement acknowledges that their expectations will be disappointed.

A first glimpse at the new works, at least as seen in reproduction, makes them seem more direct than before. Instead of her trademark silhouette technique, Ms. Walker is deploying a more traditional, full-bodied realism. But the new realism in her technique isn’t matched by a fresh transparency in her message: Her pictures still provide vast, nightmare views of almost incomprehensible violence — and sex — between races.

ImageKara Walker’s “The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (after Delacroix, Kienholz),” 2017, Sumi ink and collage on paper, from a show of work in September.Credit…Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Ms. Walker’s artist statement came on the second page of the gallery’s news release. The entire first page was filled with the 300 words of the show’s title, long even by Ms. Walker’s standards. Her stinging, monumental installation at the former Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn was called “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.”

The title of her new show begins, “Collectors of Fine Art will Flock to see the latest Kara Walker offerings,” and then goes on to gently mock the likely responses of scholars, parents, critics and even ex-husbands and former lovers. “Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media,” one sentence reads. The name ends with the words, “The Final President of the United States will visibly wince. Empires will fall, although which ones, only time will tell.”

The title was written back in May, Ms. Calhoun said, before her boss had begun her new works. Tuesday’s statement simply doubles down on the doubts and worries voiced last spring. {read}