Since her New York art world debut in 1994, Kara Walker has been known for creating alternative narratives of slavery by repurposing anti-Black antebellum caricatures in black cut-paper silhouettes, an 18th-century portraiture technique. Through these scenes, she picks at how racial inequality has been created and maintained.
Now, as the country grapples with still-standing monuments to Confederate leaders, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., is exhibiting Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), a print series made by Walker in 2005. Displayed for the first time in its entirety, the prints explore how a 150-year-old conflict can still produce so many subjective truths.
In 15 prints, Walker superimposes her cut-paper silhouettes onto reproductions of pen and ink drawings from the illustrated 1866 Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion. For generations, the book was treated as an objective archival text, even though it elided racism’s role in the war. By overlaying Black bodies onto Civil War scenes and battles, Walker uses visual disruption to restore the significance of Black experiences to the war’s legacy. She also reminds viewers that those most affected by history are often cut out of it.
Walker is not one to make explicit calls to action through her works or artist’s statements, but this show begs the question: Who did the original Harper’s historical narrative serve? History is never neutral — a fact to be mindful of when considering whether dismantling Confederate statues is “rewriting history” or simply making space for the histories that were never written.