Since the 1990s, American artist Kara Walker has crafted large-scale works that challenge historical narratives and myths about the Antebellum South and the Civil War era. Her works often relate to and evoke the history of racial terror. Walker has noted: “There are facts and experiences at the root of most race issues—hard to get to, but there—around which layers of hyperbole and fiction grow. It’s often impossible to know what actually happened, historically speaking, but it can feel necessary to knock those descriptions around.” Walker creates novel and nuanced reconstructions of this era using traditional paper-based techniques. Works on view in this gallery, for instance, incorporate reproductions of late 19th-century periodicals, and contemporary silkscreened images emulate traditional cut-paper silhouettes.
During the summer of 2017, in the midst of racially charged confrontations that gripped the national consciousness, Walker undertook another ambitious project that culminated in an exhibition anchored by several monumental drawings. U.S.A. Idioms, on display here, was part of that exhibition. The collage drawing—recently acquired by the Harvard Art Museums—is emblematic of Walker’s visual language in this moment. The repetition of branches and body parts is marked by underlying instability. Flags are tethered loosely to bandaged limbs. A woman hangs, tenuously, from a fettered branch. Bodies risk toppling at every turn.
Despite what may initially seem to be disjointed vignettes, these twisted, tangled, and truncated bodies are ultimately interconnected. With fluid and controlled lines that saturate the newsprint, this uncharacteristically sweeping drawing required Walker’s whole body in its making. The sketches, cut and collaged to the massive support, render a composition as powerful as that of the great murals of the early 20th century. Like an idiom that requires we divine the meaning behind the literal text, U.S.A. Idioms asks the viewer to question what underpins the chaos.