Kara Walker and the Missing Pages of the History Books

Artist Kara Walker uses visual disruption to restore the significance of Black experiences to the Civil War’s legacy.

Micco Caporale January 31, 2018

“Scene of McPherson’s Death” from Kara Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated).

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.

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.

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. 

Mic­co Capo­rale is an edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times.
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