The title of Kara Walker’s Pastorale is deeply ironic. It invokes rural farmland, a serene setting for much poetry, painting, and literature. Yet the drawing depicts a riotous 1920s cityscape that includes a woman wearing a cloche hat, a radio caught in the midst of destruction, and an early Mickey Mouse character without his iconic ears. On the brick wall is a pair of minstrel eyes, as if the wall is surveilling the mayhem. Slavery is written into America’s pastoral vision of itself, into nineteenth-century perceptions of southern rural life, and into the legacy of that past. In Pastorale, Walker shows the price of that horrible vision. The figures portrayed are, presumably, the descendants of the same formerly enslaved Black Americans who migrated out of forced labor on plantations and into cities, where today they continue to experience a persistent, systemic lack of freedom and justice.
Kara Walker’s works recover the iconography of the antebellum South, using the collective memories of the plantation owners and their slaves. In most of her work, Walker revives the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art of silhouetting, a long-dormant medium formerly used for portraiture, caricatures, idyllic landscapes, and decorative craft. Walker’s cutouts are nearly life size and often span either an entire wall or an entire room. Blacks and whites, men, women, and children all participate in scenes of degradation, sex, and violence as Walker interprets and studies pre–Civil War race relations. Political, funny, and beautiful, these satirical comments on race, slavery, lust, and domination generate controversy from all sides.
In 1995, Walker began a long series of sketches that have become an image bank of sorts for her larger works. Improvisational and direct, the Negress Notes, as Walker calls them, “are a way of establishing themes.” From set 5 of the series Negress Notes, 1996, consists of twenty-six drawings that record fantastic and often shocking moments from the history of slavery.
In Danse de la Nubienne Nouveaux, 1998, a seemingly fairy-tale illustration becomes a devilish account. Acrobatic slave girls flip through the air and dive through a flaming hoop into the proverbial cannibal’s pot. In this piece, as with most of Walker’s work, stereotyped symbols of the history of slavery are revealed as societal projections of a paternalistic white society. In Freudian analysis, a method Walker is fond of, the symbols have a psychodynamic underpinning fueled by sexual desire, violence, and power.