the broad

The White Power 'Gin/Machine to Harvest the Nativist Instinct for Beneficial Uses to Border Crossers Everywhere

Kara Walker
soft pastel, charcoal, and oil sticks on paper; graphite and ink on paper
86 3/4 x 216 in. (220.345 x 548.64 cm)

“Most pieces have to do with exchanges of power, attempts to steal power away from others.” —Kara Walker

In this work, Kara Walker imagines harvesting racist anxieties and fears. In the artist’s words, the work captures “thoughts about illness and the body politic and trying to imagine a fantastical mechanism whereby the bile of racism might be transfused and converted into nourishment for all.” This narrative is developed through a large triptych and several small works on paper. The works on paper feature a laboratory where white women’s bodies are emptied of both casual and overtly racist thinking. The extracted material is then used for the benefit of “border crossers everywhere.” The triptych presents a crescendo to these dissections, showing a white woman’s body in the process of being drained, with its vitals flowing through umbilical cords to Black people. On the right, tubes extend to Black figures in supine and fetal positions, perhaps on the brink of or already past death. On the left, a line of Black people, arranged shortest to tallest, stand with mouths agape to receive the “nativist instinct,” fed from a medical professional dressed in a hazmat suit. Through a complex critique, the work addresses the increasing visibility of white nationalist rhetoric and policy in the United States, specifically using open racism and xenophobia to stoke its efforts.

“I started this work with the silhouettes with the express project to make a Black woman’s art. The Black woman and me, the Negress and myself. Sort of one and the same and completely separate. It’s born partly out of just the experience of my body as it’s moved through the world, and the bodies it’s come in contact with. The kind of residual racism, residual psychosis, residual misogyny of the world.” —Kara Walker

Kara Walker was born in Stockton, California, in 1969, and moved to Stone Mountain, Georgia, at the age of thirteen. She experienced pervasive, yet often covert, racism and sexism in Georgia, where, in Walker’s words, “a longing for a romanticized and homogenous ‘past’ lingers and retains all of its former power.” She attended Atlanta College of Art and completed her graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design. 

Walker’s work mines American legacies of domination based on race, gender, and sexuality. Best known for her art that employs the nineteenth-century technique of silhouetting, once commonly used for portraits and decorative craft, Walker portrays twisted landscapes of subjugation, depravity, and desire. 

In 1997, Walker received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship “genius grant.” That same year, her work became the subject of debate when African American artist Betye Saar argued that Walker’s work was “revolting and negative” and made “for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment.” Walker’s art elicits shame and shock; nothing is off limits, from rape and bestiality to castration and cannibalism. While the work has faced criticism for its overt depictions of suffering, it is through these fictional representations that Walker confronts the real-life horrors inflicted on bodies and psyches, past and present. “I have always responded,” Walker said, “to art which jarred the senses and made one aware physically and emotionally of the shifting terrain on which we rest our beliefs.” 

Walker summons archetypes, both clichéd and freshly shocking, to study how real and imagined chronicles of past trauma affect later generations. Writer Zadie Smith notes, “Caricature and stereotype are not Walker’s flaws—they are her sharpest tools.” Walker provokes us, with a graphic punch, to face the most disturbing, uncomfortable subjects, asking us to be critical of both society at large and our personal complicity in the cruel and unjust attitudes that shape daily experience in America.