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Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.

Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.

Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.

Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.

Kara Walker, 1996


ALEXANDER:  How did you first come upon your decision to make and exhibit the cut-out silhouettes?  Did you initially put them onto canvas?

KARA:  Yes.  In Atlanta I was still sort of timidly painting things.  Then I began making little oval framed pornographic collages.  I would cover up the juicy parts with silhouettes or paperback romance novel heroines.  These aren't my favorite artworks but they were almost heading in the direction that I wanted to go.  When I left Atlanta, I slowly abandoned oil paint altogether, weaning myself of its obvious seduction and looking for a format that seemed weak....  I suppose I consider the silhouette weak.  I wanted to find a format that I could seduce.  That seems to me to be in keeping with my mindset.  Especially at that time, since I was concentrating a lot on the body of black woman as exotic seductress (purveyor of failed seductions particularly), desire, miscegenation, and all the complexities and historicity of all these things.  Eventually, I started cutting silhouettes out of wood with a jigsaw.  I first did this with a piece I called Genealogy.  I added eyes, lips, tits - that looked like eyes - and blindfolds to some, and placed them on a wall in a manner that alluded to a family tree.

ALEXANDER: What did your paintings look like?

KARA: Well, the paintings were really big.  I was trying to make up mythology, and deconstruct it at the same time.  I was using classical iconographic things like swans alluding to Leda and the Swan, and hermaphrodites.  And I was making hybrid animals as well.  But I don't think any of that carried over into my collage work.   It was strictly oil painting.  Large oil painting, with thick and juicy brushwork.

ALEXANDER:  So there was quite a transformation in your work after  you left Atlanta.

KARA: Oh, yeah, it was a conscious change.  I was determined to be better; to make work that would actually stimulate others, and not just myself.  I figured that if I succeeded in one radical transformation, then I could do anything. 
     In a way, a lot of this has to do with my leaving the South.  In Atlanta, I was very consciously trying to stay away from race issues.  There it was hard to really see these issues since the culture is so extremely black and white.  I mean, there are black artists doing work that deals with race issues in Atlanta, but I thought it all looked the same.  I didn't want to be a part of that.

ALEXANDER:  Why the silhouettes, then?

KARA: Somewhere along the way I, like many other people, became interested in kitschy items such as Sam Keane's big-eyed children that you find on prints everywhere.  So the silhouette images were popping up here and there but I wasn't really thinking of them as anything other than kitsch.  I hadn't really investigated them as having a fairly rich history.  I was thinking about blackness, and minstrelsy, and the kind of positions that I was putting myself in at home in Atlanta.  I mean, I was testing the ground to see what kind of a person I was perceived as, or what kind of a person I was thinking of myself as.  I mean, I saw myself as someone who was locked in histories, as a nebulous, shadowy character from a romance novel, but not a novel that anyone ever remembered. 

ALEXANDER: What did you see in the kitsch object that intrigued you enough to take it up in your work?  What was it that attracted you to the Sam Keane objects and motifs?

KARA: I think I liked the fact that they were just awful.  I mean, I thought that if it's ineffective to make paintings of things that one loves and finds meaningful, then what happens when one makes pictures of things that one would never want to see a picture of?  So I tried that for a little while.  The big-eyed girl went over pretty well--but it wasn't a lasting project.
     But the silhouette children kept popping up.  Initially just little sketches and tiny paintings here and there, but developed into something much more prevalent.  In fact, they took on greater importance when I began thinking about minstrelsy and putting on the Other person and interracial desire--when I attempted to see from the other person's point of view: from the point of view of the white male master from American history.
     The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that's also what the stereotype does.  So I saw the silhouette and the stereotype as linked.  Of course, while the stereotype, or the emblem, can communicate with a lot of people, and a lot of people can understand it, the other side of this is that it also reduces difference, reduces diversity to that stereotype.  I was kind of working through this in the tableaus and things that I've been doing, where the intention was to render everybody black and go from there.  Go from this backhanded philosophy that blackness is akin to everything.  

ALEXANDER: But how do you get to narrative from the silhouette emblem?

KARA: Well, from the moment that I started working on these things I imagined that some day they would be put together in a kind of cyclorama.  I mean, just like the Cyclorama in Atlanta that goes around and around in an endless cycle of history locked up in a room, I thought that it would be possible to arrange the silhouettes in such a way that they would make a kind of history painting encompassing the whole room.  This is once again informed in part by my thinking about accessibility.  After all, the Cyclorama is also a broadly accessible fairground kind of an artwork like the silhouettes.

ALEXANDER: And yet whereas the Cyclorama is exhibited in a fairground environment, your work is not, or perhaps I should say, has not yet been.  What kind of exhibition spaces do you anticipate for your work?

KARA: To be perfectly honest, I think museum and gallery spaces are carnival-like, particularly in a city like New York which is so full of spectators.  But for the most part, I like that varnish of authority that an art institution excretes, and the fact that folks walk in anticipating to look at life in a new way.  The hard part, of course, is getting them there.

ALEXANDER: Your work is site specific then, designed specifically for the spaces in which they're exhibited.

KARA: Yeah, I've made all of the wall drawings that have been done thus far on site.  Which is like cutting the shadows of the room out of paper.  When I go to cut out the silhouettes, I have my sketches on hand so that I know more or less what goes where, and what characters are supposed to do what.  But it's not like I plan it all out in my studio and then just redo it in the exhibition site.  And I do it all myself, without assistants.  There is a certain element of improvisation and working out of the particulars as the piece is being cut out that I don't think I could ever delegate to others to carry out. 

ALEXANDER: So your work definitely has a hands-on aspect to it throughout its production.

KARA: Yeah, it's crafty, which I think is important.  In fact the craftiness of the work kind of lends itself to the subject matter in a way that I find rather interesting.  First of all, I draw like a madwoman.  I doubt an assistant could find a line to follow.  I'm also very sensitive to pent-up racist accusations of laziness.  I'm subtly amused by those existing narratives by former slaves which begin with testimonials as to the literary integrity of the author - "written by Herself," and the like - and I often wonder if that same sentiment informs some of the folks who say they like what I do.
Besides, I'm actually pretty quick at cutting the shadows out.  A typical installation will take maybe three days to cut out.  Of course, it takes me a lot more time to figure out the operation of the room and how the whole narrative will be played out on the walls. 

ALEXANDER: Your work obviously employs humor to good effect.  Do you use humor as a strategy of some sort?

KARA: Actually, the humor surprises me quite a bit.  When I started the work, I think I was afraid to make comments on race.  What scared me was that I didn't know what these comments were going to be like.  They were floating around in an unknown place in my mind.  I just decided that the easiest way to figure out what was going on in my head was by free associating blackness... with my own self-impression, with situations I was in, with everything  actually. 

ALEXANDER:  So to what extent is your work developed consciously, and to what extent is it developed unconsciously?

KARA: A lot of it comes directly from  that kind of "play," if you will, that is the result of free association. 
So you can see why a lot of the stuff that I do surprises even me.  I mean, if this stuff is even in my head, then it must be in other people's.
In her book, Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison looks at what she calls the Africanisms, the blackness that occurs in literature, and examines what it does to the storyline, what the authors were or weren't intending by it.  So I took that approach and developed it introspectively, so to speak, by allowing myself to go on a tangent and then stepping back and taking a look at what I had done.  My assumption behind all of this, however, was that the whole unconsciousness of America is permeated with these condescending images of Mammy and pickaninny characters.  And the pickaninny postcards and other bits of Americana that one could find in flea markets anywhere are always the stuff of toilet humor.

ALEXANDER: Toilet humor?

KARA: Yeah, what free association was before psychoanalysis.  The kind of humor that black characters have been the "butt" of since Negroes were employed to fill a psychological gap.  Every time I enter a flea market, I see something like a pickaninny with it's head in a toilet.  This association of blackness with excrement conjures up a very early memory...wondering what the color of my white friends' shit was.  Whoever made the original toy literally employed a toilet to his or her humor, ha ha.  I find these bawdy/body associations extremely important though.  I relate through it as well...this black body...jiggling around and representing everything but itself.
     So I use humor, but a type of humor that makes it difficult for myself or a viewer to decide just how hard to laugh.  That uneasiness is an important part of the work.
     In a way, to really understand my work, or what you referred to as the "strategies" underlying my work, you have to know a bit about the American South, and the totally bipolar attitudes there.  You know, in Atlanta there's a strong middle-class black community that goes to art shows that feature work made mostly by black artists.  But art in that community has a totally different function than what happens say in the Museum of Modern Art or the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.  For this community in Atlanta, the exhibition event is very much a social event--one that usually has more of a political edge than you find in the New York exhibition.  There's an annual show in particular that takes place every February or so in Atlanta.  I forget what it's called, but it features black artists.  And this is the show that I despise the most.  What I particularly dislike about it is that the art in this show, goes out of its way to preach to the converted.  But that's what very conservative art audiences anticipate.  They wouldn't want to see anything that might rile them up, or reveal some emotions or memories that are deeply buried in their unconscious.  It's very Victorian--like some pre-modern Paris salon.  Knowing this background puts a different perspective on my work--one that you would normally miss if you just look at it from the point of view of its exhibition in Providence or New York.
     I guess what I'm saying is that I considered it almost a joke in itself to begin making work that employs characters from the history of slavery and Ante-bellum myth and literature as subject matter.  It's too perfect for artists, and way too expected of me.  When I came up north, to freedom as it were, I was determined to expose all the injustices of being me.  This strategy operated a little like the Slave Narrative tradition, except that I was conscious that I played all the roles--Master, Mistress and Abolitionist--and that the roles have been spoiled over time through the influence of Harlequin romances and pornographic genres.

ALEXANDER: There's another aspect of your work, though, that rather than being totally Southern, seems to be very much about American history.

KARA: As I see it, in the hundred year span between the end of the Civil War and the strengthening of the Civil Rights movement, the War never ended.  The South lost the War, but unable to accept this continues to replay it.  But the twenty-five or thirty years since the real end of the Civil War, which I think the Civil Rights movement brought about, has thrown Southerners into this whole other dialogue that they now have to reckon with.  You know, there's the conflict between a love of the past - and of genteel whiteness as imagined to have existed in that past - and the fear of offending the sons and grand-daughters of former slaves.  So the traces of the past are everywhere in the South.  Polite, Southern hospitality and sweetness coats everything.  But if you just scratch beneath the surface....  Then again, this happens everywhere.  This is American history.

ALEXANDER: Yeah.  And the humor operative in your work cuts through that surface quite well.  But the silhouette aspect of your work also ties it to the kitsch mass cultural icons, or emblems, that circulate widely in our society.  Do you see a connection between those traces of the past and the mass cultural, kitsch emblem?

KARA: "The traces of the past," this is my favorite aphorism.... In America, the silhouette was almost always practiced by relative amateurs.  Of course, there were a few "masters" of the genre, but all of the great outdated texts speak of lesser lights: ladies, children, and even machines that could do the job no less adroitly.  It's also an art that speaks of a kind of purity of form, color, and, insidiously, of race and heritage.  So I would think that this would appeal to an early America seeking to define itself against a flashy and complicated Europe--a Europe, by the way, that went so far as to call shadow portraits "silhouettes," after the French finance minister whose policies were derided as cheap, and who also practiced the inexpensive little art...the word is actually an insult.
     As I see it, kitsch is artworks or objects that hearken back to the days of old with sentimental excess.  Items that suggest a moment or era of wholeness and innocence, like the genteel Old South where I'm supposed to breed, or the mysterious Motherland where I'm supposed to be a queen.  The kitsch object breaks down all forms of transgression.

Alexander: What about contemporary influences?  Which artists working now or in the last couple of decades have had an impact on your work?

KARA: You'd probably have to go back a little further than that.  The work that I really dig is that done by artists such as George Grosz, Otto Dix, and others around that circle in Germany between the Wars.  Of course there's the work of Robert Colescott which I also find very important, especially in terms of subject matter.  The way he combines his wit with his militancy for the subject matter was an important model for me.  My teenage idol, however, was Andy Warhol. 

ALEXANDER: Andy Warhol?  How do you see your work related to his?

KARA: Well, his strategy of taking the most obvious things in the culture and blowing them up and placing them in a gallery is something that I think my work does as well.  But perhaps it was more Warhol's persona than his work that interested me early on.  I mean, I was fascinated by the way he operated in the artworld, and by the fact that people for the longest time, perhaps to this day, couldn't figure out if he was a genius or an idiot savant, a Chauncey Gardener.  And in fact, my identification with Warhol was so strong at one point that when he died, people sent me condolence cards. [Laughs]


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