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The Un-Private Collection: Kara Walker and Ava DuVernay

In partnership with The Broad: In anticipation of its opening, The Broad has launched "The Un-Private Collection," a talk series featuring unexpected pairings of cultural leaders and influential artists in the Broad collections, taking place at venues around Los Angeles.

As part of The Broad Museum's The Un-Private Collection, Filmmaker Ava DuVernay recently spoke with artist Kara Walker about her wide-ranging artwork and her recent sugar Sphinx sculpture, A Subtlety, which was constructed in Brooklyn's Domino sugar factory. What follows is a condensed transcript of their conversation.

Ava DuVernay:
I don't think we should handle this as a primer or an overview. I think that I was astounded by the number of thesis papers, and articles, and posts, and essays, I mean 20 years' worth...

Kara Walker:
Only, so far, yeah.

Ava DuVernay:
...that deep dive into every movement you make. So if folks are interested in that it is at your fingertips. I invite you to Google, and the world of Kara Walker opens up, everything you want to know about where she's from and how she got here. But what we were talking about just now, this moment right now, post your first massive mammoth public large-scale work, A Subtlety, and just really examining. A lot of the questions I have is just curiosity about this moment for you, if that's okay.

Kara Walker:
Yeah, that's okay. That's okay. I think that's okay.

Ava DuBernay:
Good. All right. So why don't we start with just showing people A Subtlety and walking them through... A couple of images, very few images.

Kara Walker:
Yeah. Professional clean images of the Subtlety before the crowds...

Ava DuVernay:
Shall we tell people what a subtlety is?

Kara Walker:
Sure.

Ava DuVernay:
Because I was fascinated by that, and that was...

The Un-Private Collection: Kara Walker and Ava DuVernay, an art talk presented by The Broad museum, held at The Writers Guild Theater on Saturday, October 11, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Ryan Miller/The Broad)
The Un-Private Collection: Kara Walker and Ava DuVernay, an art talk presented by The Broad museum, held at The Writers Guild Theater on Saturday, October 11, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Ryan Miller/The Broad)

Kara Walker:
Sometimes I have a long meandering way to getting to A Subtlety as a name, but a subtlety is a sugar sculpture. Let's say that it's a kind of medieval term from medieval England. I guess the equivalent would be a, oh, I don't have the language, any other kind of decorative item. Nowadays subtleties would occur in the form of wedding figures at the top of a wedding cake or chocolate hearts at Valentine's Day. They're representative sculptures, they carry meaning with them. And in an earlier day several centuries ago they carried a lot of power as well, because sugar was a substance that was really only available to the very, very powerful.

Ava DuVernay:
That's what a subtlety is.

Kara Walker:
So that's a subtlety. And the term "a subtlety" of course is somewhat ironic.

Ava DuVernay:
Right. Absolutely. Mildly. But I think we should say the full, because naming in your work is so important. I mean, if you're familiar with her work the names are legend. So what is the full name of this piece?

Kara Walker:
Well, you really can't put me on the spot like that.

Ava DuVernay:
You know it. You know it.

Kara Walker:
No. No, I already as we did the sound check, I said, "I am notorious for forgetting the entire names of my work, because..."

Ava DuVernay:
Go as far as you can. It's going to trail off somewhere, but... Okay, so it's A Subtlety, right?

Kara Walker:
A Subtlety, yes. Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. Somebody out there probably knows it faster than I do. An Homage to the, well, part of it An Homage to the Underpaid and Overworked Artisans Who Refined Our Sweet Tastes from the Cane Fields to the Kitchens of the World...

Ava DuVernay:
I knew you could do it.

Kara Walker:
...or something like that. I'm just adding to it, embellishing. It's all about embellishment at a certain point.

Ava DuVernay:
Yeah. But essentially, I mean, I want to jump into just a deeper conversation about it, but just the logline, and we can go through the images 38, 39 if we can scroll through there as we talk. So 38 is a slide, view 39, the luscious back view. Can you walk us through just the overview of what we're looking at here?

Kara Walker:
Well, what we're looking at... What we're looking at is, what are we looking at?

Ava DuVernay:
We're looking at an ass.

Kara Walker:
We're looking at a big ass. We're looking at a big ass and a big vagina, and very big toes. And there are many stages to working on this project, but as I started to kind of realize that this was going to be a sculptural form that was going to have to be gargantuan and have to be mammoth in order to include the ideas and situations and histories that I wanted to include, and it would have to be full of contradictions, and contradictions about power, and where does power, where do we possess it? Or where are we dispossessed of it?

I realized that this form as a sphinx couldn't be a mythological lion-figured woman-headed body. It had to be a sort of woman-figured body. And in my sketches and notes there were questions about how full-figured, how woman-figured would she be? And it became really necessary I think to not forget about what's going on under there. I did get asked by one of my helpers who's one of the builders who was carving out the sphinx, she said, "Why no butthole?" And I said, "I thought maybe it was too much." It's not censorship at that point. I think it's just kind of editing.

The Un-Private Collection: Kara Walker and Ava DuVernay, an art talk presented by The Broad museum, held at The Writers Guild Theater on Saturday, October 11, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Ryan Miller/The Broad)
The Un-Private Collection: Kara Walker and Ava DuVernay, an art talk presented by The Broad museum, held at The Writers Guild Theater on Saturday, October 11, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Ryan Miller/The Broad)

Ava DuVernay:
Restraint. Yes, we understand. So this work, some of the specs that I know that I will be able to share before we dive into, 75 feet long, 35 feet high?

Kara Walker:
Yeah, 35.

Ava DuVernay:
Thirty-five feet high. sugar coated history, basically, but covered with sugar, right?

Kara Walker:
Covered with sugar, coated with just granulated sugar.

Ava DuVernay:
And I think some of our 40 and, let me see, if I can go through 40, 41, 42 we start to see the boys, the children. Talking a little about these gentlemen, 45 always breaks my heart. But a bit about the attendants.

Kara Walker:
Right. So as this piece was coming together it was kind of at a stage of running out of time, which seems to me how it always happens, and running out of time it gelled. And I felt that the space as a gargantuan figure's one thing, but a figure that has to be in relation to something beyond just the audience. And this figure is relating to the space, this sugar factory, but in my initial stages of trying to understand how to do, what is sculpture?

Not how to do sculpture, but what does it mean sort of right now? What does it mean in a sort of domestic say African American specifically context? Where does it lay? And so I started kind of uncovering all of these kinds of sculpture like tchotchkes and figures and bookshelf items that are somewhat laudatory, where they have a kind of promise of a sort of positive representation of African-ness or African woman-ness.

And so I started collecting those. And then as I went down the line I found these much more ambiguous figures lurking out there in sort of gift shop sites, and it was almost, what are these supposed to be? It's clear when you have the beautiful African goddess that she's there to serve a very specific desire or need, but who are these four? Who are these subservient little boy workers?

Ava DuVernay:
Why do they sell them on the Internet?

Kara Walker:
And with their cherubic faces, and they're very sweet, and so they contain some of that longing that sort of preexists, this moment, this longing for black representation. And yet they're still holding bananas and they've got weirdly splayed animal-like toes, which we only discovered upon blowing them up to human scale. These were much smaller items. And then when I found those I thought, well, they could be the subtlety, or they could be rendered in... I wanted to only work with sugar, so granulated sugar, brown sugar, molasses, all the byproducts of sugar.

I was really thinking about just all the processes that go into turning this substance into this white granulated powder. And hard candy figure was what I hit upon. And when you work as I was with Creative Time or an organization that says, "We will try and help you do whatever you want," it's very liberating and at the same time rife with frustrations. Because sometimes what you want is what nobody knows how to do, including yourself. So this little figure is cast out of sugar and corn syrup and heat.

Ava DuVernay:
And it was melting throughout the installation.

Kara Walker:
Yeah. There were intended to be about 12 or 15 of them, and I managed to cast six, and we managed to show three, because they were disintegrating and mel-, actually, I think we cast seven. The first one completely melted, and it was all trial and error, experimenting with something that even sugar sculptors didn't really want to touch.

Ava DuVernay:
Right, right. It's really temporal. So going back a little bit and talking about Creative Time and the canvas. This is, I won't say a leap, because I don't know if it's...

Kara Walker:
I think you can say it's a leap.

Ava DuVernay:
You would say that it's a leap? You would? I mean, I think it's an extension of your existing storytelling, just on a larger canvas. So it's kind of negotiating is it a leap or is it just a natural next step progression? I'm not sure, but I know that your entry point into it was by invitation, which I saw a bit of a kindred spirit or connectedness to, because my current project is something that also did not come initially from my brain, which is very different from any way that I'd worked before.

And I was offered a film, "Hey, want to do something about Dr. King?" "Okay." So this was the same thing. It was, "We've got this sugar factory, and it's about to be torn down. And is there anything you want to do with it?" And it's a very different entry point to the work...

Kara Walker:
It is a very different one.

Ava DuVernay:
...than what you'd done before, and I wondered how you negotiated that and found your own way there.

Kara Walker:
Well, I think this kind of, I don't know if you experienced this, but it's, well, I can't say it completely spoiled me. It might have spoiled me for future large-scale projects, public work projects, because it went so smoothly. Let's see if I can find a concise answer. When the team at Creative Time approached me we had two things happen. One was, I had resisted for a while, and I was, I'm just doing my own thing. And then at some point they said, "Well, just come and see the space," and I saw the space and I felt like this was it, this was a moment, but I didn't know what I was going to do, but I felt this was a moment.

And as we continued to talk one of the curators, Nato Thompson, said, "Well, you know, we were thinking we could do a series of projects with a lot of different artists. And you know, we've got all this space," and I was, "I want to do this." And it was kind of like one of those moments where you have to face your ambition or your ego or something, or some combination. And I was, "Yeah, I totally can do this. I totally can do it. I don't know what I'm going to do, but I totally can do this."

And no doubt, no room for doubt until after, eight months after. But it's interesting to have a challenge thrown at you, and particularly if half of it is sort of built already. I don't know if that was the case with you, if you had the script or something that was already kind of present and you're, okay now, how do I make this mine? How do I understand this space, and what I do, and the history of this space and the history of my work, and the difference in audience?

There's something about when you're kind of in it in the art world or maybe even in the indie film world and you kind of have an idea or you have sort of set responses or set histories that you know that you're working within, and then when you break that open and you're, oh, this is for everybody potentially, potentially everyone in New York or everybody in the world. But it's hard to find the limits of what kind of viewer is going to... People don't understand my work, they're not familiar with public sculpture, there's a lot of open-ended question marks.

Ava DuVernay:
Right, right. I mean, I think that there is a lot connected in the idea of making small independent films, which I did or do still, and the cutouts, the silhouettes, the intimate handcrafted kind of very detailed work, and then kind of this leap or next step. A lot of times I see it just short of an assignment, is what it was, which is a completely foreign way of working for me. I mean, it was. The framework was there. Do something in this building. The framework was there for me. This is the guy you've got to follow. Which is completely foreign to the way in for you.

Kara Walker:
I actually found that this time around was the time that it worked. It hasn't happened often, but one or two times in the past somebody's said, "Well, we have this sort of space" or this sort of public venue, and then it's sort of this weird vetting process where a thousand other people have to get involved, maybe like producers in your case, and they say, "Oh no, we don't like that," or "That's not like the work that you usually do."

And then I say something rude privately under my breath and say, "You know, it's not supposed to be like the work I usually do, because the work I usually do, I mean, there isn't really a usual, but there are the cut-paper works and there's a way of trying to find my way into an idea, or a location, or subject matter, or a character or something, that you have to make space for that if we're going to work together."

Ava DuVernay:
Yeah, absolutely. So you're there, you said, "I got it. I'm going to take the whole spot."

Kara Walker:
You can give it all to me, yeah.

Ava DuVernay:
"I can do it." They say, "Okay." You're like, holy snacks, I got to do it. And all of a sudden you're working with forklifts, and cranes, and just the toys. A lot of times for me, and it was the same thing on Selma, my last film was 200 thousand dollars, this film is like tens of millions of dollars. And so at some point I said, "Do I even need all this stuff? Like, I know how to tell the story like this, you know what I mean, and I feel like it's just as effective."

And then I'd think, wow, that type of storytelling or what way of telling the story was born out of a lack or a limitation. I've come to like it, but do I force myself to break out of it, which is what I've done on this. What was the experience like scaling up, directing a crew with hardhats?

The Un-Private Collection: Kara Walker and Ava DuVernay, an art talk presented by The Broad museum, held at The Writers Guild Theater on Saturday, October 11, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Ryan Miller/The Broad)

Kara Walker:
Definitely a challenge for me. I mean, I have a studio space that's a decent sized studio space. But it's just me, and I have a studio manager, and a studio assistant now who came on in February, and people who come in intermittently to help with small projects. But never a crew, I was never in a place where I felt comfortable directing people. I wanted it to be sort of small and intimate, even with these sort of cut-paper puppet videos that I've made. When there was a crucial scene that I didn't want anybody else to be a part of I would just do it on my own.

Ava DuVernay:
You cleared the set for the puppets?

Kara Walker:
I cleared the set...

Ava DuVernay:
That's fantastic.

Kara Walker:
Yeah. No, it's just kind of, I don't know how I'm going to show this with other people nearby. Or actually what I found is, I couldn't arrive at that scene with other people around, because it was just, who am I doing this for? So having the team amassed I was still kind of hiding. And even as we were progressing I was, my notes and my sketches, and then here's the team builder. Art comes, and he's the facilitator, and he just likes to make things happen physically in the world, and he knows the right engineer to bring in and some sculptors to bring in.

And they were the nicest people you ever met, nobody pushing their agenda, just, "We want to make this happen for you." And then it started to build gradually over maybe, we only had like six weeks lead time before we actually had to get into the space, maybe eight. And how are we going to apply the sugar? Are we melting the sugar, are we boiling the sugar? Is the sugar raw? What happens? And that moment when we got into the space, and it was March, and it was cold, cold, cold, and I felt guilty.

I felt ashamed, it was making these people suffer. It was like 28 degrees in the space. And the forklifts. And as it started building I realized, oh, it's actually happening. But I did have to be kind of directed to direct. Because I thought, oh, these people are really skilled. They can work the forklift and go up on the cherry picker, and I'll just hang back over here and just do a little, should be looking like that. And they're, "No, you know, really, this is yours." And I was, "It's much bigger than my things."

Ava DuVernay:
So when was the moment, was there a moment where you actually stepped into...

Kara Walker:
Oh, yeah. And stepping into it, it's always collaborative. It's, well, can we do this in this way? And yes, or no. This isn't going to make sense because we've got the sugar boy fabricating team working over here, and they're figuring things out on the fly. So it's always collaborative. It's, can we add a little bit of this, or not?

Ava DuVernay:
Sure. Okay. So you step into the moment, you're collaborating, you've said yes to the whole space. You stepped into the moment. You're directing the guys, the engineers.

Kara Walker:
There was never a moment that I ever thought that this was really going to happen, even as it was happening. Just I can't believe, especially when the ass was going up, and I was just, I can't believe they're letting this happen. I can't believe you're letting me do this. And it's here, and it's big, and it's still getting bigger. And then they'd say, "Well, we're only at level D, you know, and there's another, you know..."

Ava DuVernay:
Yeah, I know. There's a picture in your video of you, you've got the sugar goop and you're like christening, putting it on the body of the sphinx, of this half-mammy half-sphinx. And I'm just, look at that. What is she doing?

Kara Walker:
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, I think maybe what still kind of exists for me now that the piece is gone, it's like this amazing weird uncanny moment happened.

Ava DuVernay:
The echo of that's still there.

Kara Walker:
Yeah.

Ava DuVernay:
So it's that weekend, it's opening weekend. I mean, that's movie terms. Was it a weekend?

Kara Walker:
There was a lot of little openings. There was a gala first, and then there was the opening weekend.

Ava DuVernay:
All right. So the idea of opening weekend. So it's the opening, and is it 8,000 people, people were lined up around the black.

Kara Walker:
The first weekend was more like 4,000, I think, 3,000, which was a lot. Yeah, yeah. At that time I was, wow, that's a lot of people. People don't just come out to see shows now, and they were only open on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and then there would be some like little VIP things thrown in during the week.

Ava DuVernay:
Yeah. And so that moment where, because a number of things were going on there. You have large crowds of people, the pictures of the line snaking around the building, that moment of, wow, it is happening, and the doors are open, and people are about to walk in. And also this idea, I wonder, of it being people like me who are not art literate.

I'm not art world literate. I am art world illiterate. Just walking in and negotiating their own feelings with this, and your decision not to have placards, not to have any interpretation, just letting people walk in and deal with it who are not used to interpreting that. Why that decision, and what was going on at the moment that you let that go down?

Kara Walker:
Okay. Okay. I let that go down because, okay, we had a couple of conversations around this. As I was working I find as an artist sometimes I spend time writing some things in a kind of arty way. Sometimes I can write things that are more concise. And sometimes I found myself working on this project visually almost exclusively. I was reading some stuff, but also trying to respond to things and trying to find the images that would suit.

And what happened was, I would meet with curators from Creative Time and it was, "This is what the piece is," and it was, "Oh, okay, so it's this PowerPoint," and it was, "No, no, no. The PowerPoint is just images with words so that you understand what I'm thinking about, but that's not what the piece is," right?

Ava DuVernay:
Right. Correct.

Kara Walker:
Because it was, okay, what is the piece? And I was, okay, so the piece, it contains this set of ideas that starts at molasses because this building is coated on the inside with molasses and raw sugar. So it starts with molasses and it dovetails with environmental destruction, and commodities, and commodifying of bodies, and it's about distilling, it's about boiling. And I kept coming back to this physical kind of process of processing this thing so that it would become this product that's still kind of a waste product in the end, and it's still kind of contested. Sugar is contested.

There were these moments when I didn't have a thing, but I had these ideas that I wanted a thing to contain. And okay, so I'm getting to your question. So the sort of moment and the reason that A Subtlety happened as A Subtlety was, after doing some reading and realizing that there are ways that sugar was used to employ ideas, right, okay? And I also realized that, who is the who who's viewing this work? Who is the public?

And this public is again not necessarily the art viewing audience but also a sophisticated audience, an audience that may be able to get some of this but not all of this. And I assume that with all of my work, that I make these cut-paper silhouettes and these shadow puppet movies with a kind of a view towards the broadest possible audience that I could imagine, not just an art audience but fully cognizant of things that have come before me in art and responding to that as well. So what is a location, right?

Before this was a sphinx it was, what is something, an object that contains the idea of ruins, and spectacle, and civilization, and slavery that everybody knows, whether or not they've seen it? And I was, oh, a sphinx, a sphinx. And it was just like a little glimmer of an idea. It seemed kind of silly. It actually still seems pretty silly. And why not a sphinx? And so I played around sketching it for a little while, why not a sphinx? And the more I thought about it the more I thought, this is something that, it is legible on so many levels.

And what I adore in a way about art experiences is that it is a nonverbal experience, and what I abhor a lot of the time is the way that museums and institutions have to educate. And I know it's their mission, but there is something that gets lost sometimes when there's too much information at the outset. And I wanted, if this thing was going to be mammoth then it was going to overwhelm even the faintest possibility of descriptive... It's like why I couldn't write it down, why I kept having to kind of explain it in storytelling or in these kind of other sort of media that would kind of get to the heart of it.

But I could never arrive at the heart of the thing through placards or language. So that said, there was a lot of stuff that got put on the website through Creative Time and there was a lot of other conversations about, well, should we integrate the PowerPoint that you made, or should we have a space set aside that has the explanatory texts, or should... And there were moments when I thought, well yes, yes, but it starts to feel didactic and it waters down this, like, kaboom, experience, now what happens after that?

Ava DuVernay:
That's my next question. So by not giving it that context or not kind of declaring any kind of specific intention, then you have people that are walking in that are coming from all kinds of different walks, everyone was in there. They're reacting to it with their own set of, something's vile, something's...

Kara Walker:
Yeah, people are rude and...

Ava DuVernay:
Their own socialization. And it's alarming. And so what happens with that choice is that there's a phenomenal outpouring of inappropriateness. Some people see it as inappropriate. Some people, maybe this was what you were going for, I don't know, this is my question, but it's this New Age 2014 kind of call and response in some ways, I think, of the selfie. So you have, I wish we had some...

Kara Walker:
Yeah, I have a lot of images.

Ava DuVernay:
You have people from all walks of life that are posing. I mean, it became the story at some point. And so it was a hashtag, #karawalkerdomino, and it was a Instagram sensation. Someone created a selfie generator. Did you know of this?

Kara Walker:
I heard about that.

Ava DuVernay:
A selfie generator where if you were in another state and you were not there you could still insert yourself into the picture and do something with it. You know what I mean? It became this thing with the, you know what I mean, it became this other thing. And so, A, what was going on with you as that was happening, B, was any of it expected or contrived in any way? Was any of it manufactured by you, and...

Kara Walker:
Oh, no.

Ava DuVernay:
...and, and four months later looking at that specific part of people inserting themselves in the work in that way where are you left with this? What is your thought?

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Kara Walker:
Well, let's see. Well, a couple of thoughts, sort of maybe moving backwards, back into the piece. The last couple of hours of the last day of the piece I had sent my team of video artists to record the audience interacting with the piece, and I'm working and looking at a lot of this footage right now and figuring out what to do with it.

And in that footage you'll see just this sort of sea of humanity doing what humans do somehow, families with children posing, people doing lewd gestures, being really offensive actually. Some people enabling others to, okay, some girlfriend sending their boyfriend closer. Now do this, do this, do this. And like that, and guys embarrassed, "No, don't make me do that." And so there's kind of these waves of all types of response, that people are uncomfortable around big bodies, and...

Ava DuVernay:
Black woman bodies.

Kara Walker:
Big black woman bodies, and the voluptuousness, and sort of the earth mother, and then the concubine, and all of that is embedded in this body. And there's that feeling, yeah, people will always misinterpret artwork. I mean, every interpretation that we make that is not that of the artist is another person's misinterpretation. Thus the 5,000 thesi and dissertations on my work, which I can respond to in a minute. So I actually find that kind of thing fascinating and part of our human story.

And then the sort of icing on top of that is the sort of essays and complaints and tweets and blogs that come out responding to this kind of parade that happened because of this piece, and how this piece kind of activates its own history somehow. It activates the histories that it contains. It sort of shows something up about us. We've met the enemy and he is us. That's my modus operandi most of the time.

Ava DuVernay:
So as it's happening what are you thinking? And I really just want to, for folks that are not, I mean, how can we describe some of the stuff that was going on? I mean...

Kara Walker:
Well, people like tweet the nipples, they dive into the vagina, lots of guys being dudes in that way. And people getting angry about it, too. A friend of mine told me there was a argument. Some woman had words on day one.

Ava DuVernay:
Oh, day one?

Kara Walker:
Yeah. That somebody was doing something a nipple and some other woman said, "Don't do that." Because it makes black women feel uncomfortable in their bodies to see that.

Ava DuVernay:
Right. I read that someone yelled out at one point on day two or three to the folks taking pictures, "You're re-creating the very racism this art is supposed to critique." And it turned into a bit of a thing with Creative Time and... So this work is bringing out that kind of...

Kara Walker:
Yeah. I mean, it's more of a, I mean, exorcism isn't the right word because exorcism supposes that it will dissipate somehow or that it's more like a drawing out. I don't know if this is true or not, and somebody once was telling me about the way you get a tapeworm out of your system is to lie the afflicted next to a bowl of hot soup.

And as they're lying there the tapeworm emerges from their mouth. It's a little something like that. The stuff is there, and I think it's more alarming. I mean, it's alarming any time you experience or re-experience racism and racist acts, and it's alarming when you want to wish them away also. It just is problematic. I do both of those things.

Ava DuVernay:
Right. But one of the critiques of folks, I think there are a lot of kind of black culture critics, and just black folk in this space who have throughout your career had questions about intention, and kind of black faces in white spaces, and how you're negotiating that, and what you're playing with, and what's purposeful, and what's unintentional just as a result.

But with this specifically. Because I saw something earlier on where you had said, and we talked about it a little bit, that when you approach it there was a feeling of reverence, that some people felt. But other folks felt just very comfortable around this black woman's body and this form to be inappropriate and do whatever they wanted.

Kara Walker:
But when I see people being inappropriate I don't think of them as being comfortable. But maybe that's because I was spying on them. They just didn't know it.

Ava DuVernay:
Which leads me to the question, while all this is happening, your piece is there, we've gone through the moment where you say, "I can do this. I'm going to occupy this whole space." You're the artist, you're the center, and you're directing all of these people to create it, and it's going up five, six, however many stories it is. And 4,000 people come, and you're in the moment, and it starts to become this other thing. Where are you?

Kara Walker:
Physically?

Ava DuVernay:
Because you stop coming around. You...

Kara Walker:
Well, I couldn't, actually. I tried the first or second day or something, I went out there. And I can't be there in a way, I couldn't be there because it was a distraction somehow. But on the other hand people came up to me, people had questions, people cried, people hugged. And it happened multiple times, so I'm not calling anybody out, that I went there and then somebody was in tears and approached me and said their words, and then took a selfie with me. And it was all, well, all of a piece. And so it's not sort of any one thing, it's kind of messy, like the floor of the space after the show started.

Ava DuVernay:
Right. So you remove there as a artist who would be kind of getting in the way of what people are seeing.

Kara Walker:
Right. So I went a couple of times though.

Ava DuVernay:
Couple times. But where are you in watching this as spectacle from a distance as the creator of the work? What was going on for you heart-wise during that?

Kara Walker:
That's harder to answer in public.

Ava DuVernay:
Still processing? All right. Okay.

Kara Walker:
Yeah. No, definitely still processing. The slightly humorous/not humorous, story is that I took a small vacation towards the end of May because it was press, and then the gala, and then my parents came in town, and I had a family member pass, and then my sister got engaged, and it was just, life was happening and this piece was happening which was trying to eclipse life a little bit, and then I went on this small vacation to a Caribbean Island resort. And then I said, "Why did I come here if I wanted to get away from the sugar industry and slavery? Why would I do this to myself?"

So I sat really miserably on this island just thinking about generations of people marooned there, and this kind of attitude of, "Oh, we don't see many African Americans coming here. Like, you know, how is it for you?" And I was, "I can't even tell you. I can't." So that was physically where I went, and then I just kind of went deeper into this, I don't know how to be, who to be, what to be.

There were moments when I was like at home on a weekend thinking, no, I should go there because this is where everybody is. There's this thing happening in town, and it's mine, and it's interesting, and I'm curious. And then I would go and again, it's like a sort of weird toxin that goes into the space. People want pictures, people want to ask questions, and then people get competitive, and they're, "No, I was here first." And I'm just, it's not about that. So yeah, it's tricky. It's tricky because also it's a bigger, wider, more Internet-savvy world than I actually want to admit to. So yes.

Ava DuVernay:
Okay, got it. Got it. The architecture in which your work lives is something that I've been thinking about a lot just in connection with my own stuff. These literal spaces, the museum, the movie house, places that traditionally have not been welcoming to people of color, and I think it's been a question a lot with your work as to how much. I think at one point you had said something like, early on in your career you struggled with the idea that people were projecting onto you of you sidling up to white power or these structures. And yet we're 25 years later, and you're still doing your thing, right?

Kara Walker:
Yeah.

Ava DuVernay:
And the scale of the ideas are getting bigger and bigger, and more complex. And so I'm wondering, because I watched an interview with you quite a while ago where you were talking about this, well I don't know if it was a struggle, but this tension...

Kara Walker:
Well, that's kind of a central I think conflict somehow in doing the work is, what is this power?

The Un-Private Collection: Kara Walker and Ava DuVernay, an art talk presented by The Broad museum, held at The Writers Guild Theater on Saturday, October 11, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Ryan Miller/The Broad)
The Un-Private Collection: Kara Walker and Ava DuVernay, an art talk presented by The Broad museum, held at The Writers Guild Theater on Saturday, October 11, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Ryan Miller/The Broad)

Ava DuVernay:
It seems to be specifically a lot centered around you. You know what I mean? You know what I mean? And your work. I think that there are other artists that, this critique is bypassing them in some way, or people don't feel it's applicable. But just wondering. I mean, you've been taking that for a while. And how have you seen that as nourishing you or not? Because I just see the work and the ideas growing and becoming more, they're kind of blossoming from this place of this questioning. I don't know if that makes any sense.

Kara Walker:
I think it does. I'll speak in my circuitous way. I'm about to get myself in trouble, is just what I was thinking. I kind of operate from this space of black privilege. And I never thought about it as a thing till recently because everyone's talking about white privilege. And I was, no, no, I think because of some of the circumstances of my growing up. My father's an artist, he's an educator.

He really put a lot of stock and a lot of faith in people's ability to understand themselves and be free in that somehow, and without a lot of instruction in a way, and certainly not a lot of chastising. So I think that some of the ways that I work are kind of with the understanding, perhaps incorrectly, always aware that it's probably an incorrect assumption, that I can do what I want within my work, and that something about my being here, being a woman of color and experiences that I've had, that's going to be in the work. When I was younger I didn't want that to be the case, and...

Kara Walker:
Yes. Moved away from all of those. Let's be metaphorical about it. And then when I got older I thought, well, isn't it funny? I ought to just be completely direct about it. Because everybody hates that. And then of course the question is, what is direct? And the direct address is always kind of predicated on these other preconceived ideas, and stereotypes, and notions, and fallacies that I had incorporated into my psyche without realizing it.

So there's a lot of the work that is a part self-examination as it is kind of picking apart, how did these images and ideas get there? How do I respond to them, and am I responding to them in a voice that's mine, or is it sort of universal, or is it uniform, or things like that? I was just going to jump to something because we said something earlier.

Ava DuVernay:
Yeah, we can look at that.

Kara Walker:
I had an artist colleague sort of, yeah, I mean, she also pointed it out to me in that voice like, "There are so many people writing just about your work. And it's shocking and it's kind of galling in a way, because there's so many other artists who are working." And in my effort to be the universal black woman artist, as we all must be...

Ava DuVernay:
That's right. All things to all.

Kara Walker:
...I wound up doing a show that was just a series of drawings for potential book covers for other people's dissertations on my work. Nobody's really taken me up on it, but I just thought I would just kind of, okay, there's this and... So each one was kind of my own dissertation, but in the end an offering too.

Ava DuVernay:
Are you reading that stuff? Are you consuming any of it?

Kara Walker:
I can't. No, I don't think that would be... I mean, sometimes early on when people send me things or there's an article or something, but I don't know, I don't want to be defined...

Ava DuVernay:
You're not engaging with it.

Kara Walker:
I don't want to be defined.

Ava DuVernay:
Right. You don't want to be defined.

Kara Walker:
I don't want to be defined.

Ava DuVernay:
Okay. Okay. Well, you know that you're being defined, you just don't want to participate. How do you defend your heart from some of that stuff? I mean, because it's, early on, I don't know if folks are familiar, but it was... So she won the MacArthur, she's a MacArthur Genius. When that happens she's 27. What was it, 1997?

Kara Walker:
Yes.

Ava DuVernay:
And so you were the youngest...

Kara Walker:
At that time.

Ava DuVernay:
The youngest at that time. And it was a reaction to that from some elders in the art world, specifically the black art world, specifically the black woman art world about the image making and storytelling that you were sharing. I just put myself in that position and I think, I've never had that kind of, well let's say negativity, because I think some of it is valuable to explore but there was not a vitriol, but there was a harshness.

Kara Walker:
There was a harshness, for sure.

Ava DuVernay:
There was a harshness there that could break someone. Or it could have someone passive-aggressively kind of going in the opposite direction. What did it do for you, and now 25 years later, that moment of some really beautiful elder black woman artists reacting, I don't know, violently in some way, very negatively to what you were doing and yet carrying on to a point where we're now looking at a half-mammy half-sphinx sugar coated in the sugar factory? I mean, you basically kept running with it.

Kara Walker:
I guess so. I mean, there were sort of like two waves, and there's again my own wave. A lot happened in 1997. My daughter was born, the MacArthur happened and the controversial, I started getting wind of what was being written and sent around. And then I had my daughter, and then I was, okay, well, how do I... My way of being in the world, especially at that time because I really didn't talk much, was, well, I'll just respond, I always imagined like rap battle style. Art begets art somehow.

So I was responding to things that I had seen that came out of the Black Arts Movement that I thought didn't sort of take into account a very particular aspect of one's relationship to these stereotypical figures. I think that it's completely appropriate that of all the people Betye Saar would have been the most outraged by it, and she probably cottoned onto that. I looked at, yeah, a lot of work coming out of that movement. My father was sort of parallel but not doing the same sort of work.

But I felt like I was familiar enough with the making, and I was becoming more familiar with these stereotypical images to the point that I thought that, what happens when you yourself an artist claim some kind of agency over those images? I mean, I don't think that that's that different than being a white toymaker in the 19th century making that toy in the first place.

I just as an artist, one of my kind of central conflicts is around the agency that I may or may not have to make something in the first place, not whether or not it'll be seen but whether or not in plastering something, whether assuming that this blank piece of paper is blank enough for me to just be a master to it. And so I think that that dialogue with my agency and the projected subjectivity of the paper is the core problem of how can I, a person who believes in freedom, make these figures do my bidding?

I think it's cruel and unfair, and I don't think that it's right as an artist to assume that just making that mammy figure be a warrior is suddenly transforming her. You're still making her do something that you want her to do. So that was maybe central and probably totally unspoken until this moment. So to that end it was completely necessary I guess that this thing opened up. Now, the way it opened up was, there was vitriol, there was rage, it was name-calling and some things like that. And I just, I don't really traffic in that arena so much.

So I retreated into motherhood, and I did a lot of drawings and tried to respond in the way that I knew how to respond, which was sort of writing and drawing, and eventually kind of arrived at an idea that, you said call and response earlier. And I said, well, that's what this is, is that when you sort of besiege a viewer with this imagery it just sits there, which I think is fascinating. That's why I did this big piece.

It just sits there being, and it's unsettling. And a viewer needs to be able to talk back to it, and they need some response back from something, and that thing just sits there. So that's my understanding now, is that it's a part of that process of calling out. And if it means calling out the artist who made it, calling out the thing that it is, calling out the culture that produced the circumstances for the making of this thing, I mean, it froths over.

The Un-Private Collection: Kara Walker and Ava DuVernay, an art talk presented by The Broad museum, held at The Writers Guild Theater on Saturday, October 11, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Ryan Miller/The Broad)
The Un-Private Collection: Kara Walker and Ava DuVernay, an art talk presented by The Broad museum, held at The Writers Guild Theater on Saturday, October 11, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Ryan Miller/The Broad)

Ava DuVernay:
Sure it does. Do you feel like, not seeking, it's the wrong word, but as you're making things do you consider that the controversy around your work has become a part of your work, and are you incorporating that and consciously incorporating that at all? I mean, almost everything you do is eliciting some kind of response, but I think you...

Kara Walker:
It elicits a response, but I don't...

Ava DuVernay:
But you know it is going to.

Kara Walker:
I'm naïve. No, I mean, it's strange. I do what I'm feeling, and what I'm feeling is I think monstrous. So I do it in the nicest possible way, and I think that's what's unsettling. It's cut-paper, and I think that the one thing that I can give that seems like a gift is the part that looks pretty. And the other part that feels like a curse is the part that I was feeling in the first place.

If we go to image number 29 which is a still from this sort of shadow puppet video called Miss Pipi's Blue Tale, or Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi's Blue Tale, it was born out of conflictual feelings that were both personal and larger than me, and political, and historical, and also in relation to the process of making. So even in the process of making the thing I had to destroy the puppet.

Ava DuVernay:
I wish we could watch that. But is there any place where folks can, I mean, you can't access this.

Kara Walker:
Well, actually, not really. I was going to, oh, I shouldn't say. I was going to show it.

Ava DuVernay:
How long is it?

Kara Walker:
It's about eight minutes. Oh no, I'm sorry, this one's 18 minutes. It's a little bit long. It's my epic.

Ava DuVernay:
That's true, that's true. That's true, that's your masterpiece.

Kara Walker:
My 18 minute masterpiece.

Ava DuVernay:
We've got a few minutes left before we go to questions, five minutes, and I want to ask things that no one asks Kara Walker. May I?

Kara Walker:
Okay.

Ava DuVernay:
Okay. I mean, not crazy, not crazy. Just these are the pedestrian things people want to know. Do you watch TV? Do you?

Kara Walker:
I put my TV in the basement of my house.

Ava DuVernay:
I thought it was going be an answer...

Kara Walker:
So I sometimes watch things, but I don't know really what's on.

Ava DuVernay:
Okay. Movies?

Kara Walker:
Sort of. Let's say sort of. I used to watch more movies, and I live right down the street from BAM, I could be going to the movie theater every week, every weekend, every day. But I...

Ava DuVernay:
Don't.

Kara Walker:
...haven't. I've been a little bit, but my daughter's really interested in filmmaking now, so she's kind of doing her own film study. So I'm sort of catching up again, sort of watching films and whatever in the basement.

Ava DuVernay:
Okay, okay. Music.

Kara Walker:
Music I listen to, yes.

Ava DuVernay:
Are you using it as you work? Is it in your studio space with you?

Kara Walker:
I do. I have a big, well it's not a fancy, it's just like a PA system with my iPod dock, and I listen to, when I listen I listen to Erykah Badu and I listen to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonatas over and over again when I'm working. I had a phase where I listened to D'Angelo's Voodoo for like four months, and then I...

Ava DuVernay:
Many of us did. Yes, yes.

Kara Walker:
Yeah. There's music.

Ava DuVernay:
Social media. You are a lurker.

Kara Walker:
I lurk a little. I'm not a Twitterer.

Ava DuVernay:
You're not a Twitterer.

Kara Walker:
I have a little bit of an incognito...

Ava DuVernay:
Incog-Negro?

Kara Walker:
Yeah, exactly. That's what I do.

Ava DuVernay:
An incog-Negro Instagram?

Kara Walker:
Instagram. And you'll never find me.

Ava DuVernay:
Never find her.

Kara Walker:
And then, yeah, a little Facebooking, but I've curbed the Facebooking because my mom's on Facebook, and my daughter's on Facebook.

Ava DuVernay:
Right. Once that happens...

Kara Walker:
Even my daughter doesn't even do Facebook or Instagram any more.

Ava DuVernay:
Once my grandma was on I was, you know what? Love her though, love her so much. So yeah, those were my questions. I think the audience is going to have some brilliants to ask. And so The Broad is so high tech. You're sitting in the audience but you can't ask the question, you got to tweet it. I mean...

Kara Walker:
I think it's pretty cool. It is pretty cool.

Ava DuVernay:
Okay, here we go. How do you each view the evolution of...whoa, oh lordy.

Kara Walker:
Is that one from the audience or from the...

Ava DuVernay:
This is from the audience.

Kara Walker:
Oh, hi.

Ava DuVernay:
Oh, goodness. How do you each view the evolution... I'm going to just let you answer this. How do you view the evolution of American society? Where is the story going?

Kara Walker:
What? Where is the story going?

Ava DuVernay:
Twitter is coming with the heat.

Kara Walker:
Where is the story going? Well, like the crowds, I'm going to use the crowd analogy for my piece. The story's going where it wants to go. But...

Ava DuVernay:
Yeah.

Kara Walker:
Yeah.

Ava DuVernay:
Got you.

Kara Walker:
I think it's a tall order to ask an artist to answer that question. Because I make up stuff sometimes, and I make up stories that are based on other stories. And I think the thing that you probably can speak to too, but don't have to, is storytelling is kind of the basis of our art. Anyway.

Ava DuVernay:
Indeed. Has your desire for sugar changed since you started using it as a art material?

Kara Walker:
Well, the piece was going up and while I was like putting my hands into a like five-gallon bucket of sugar water paste I actually felt like, yeah, the reverence thing was very clear. I understand that this substance is supercharged, and my using it in this quantity, from where it's come from and how it got here, all that is really charged. So anytime I have my little, I don't use a lot, but I have my coffee and my sugars.

Ava DuVernay:
Yes. Yes, those.

Kara Walker:
I hear you.

Ava DuVernay:
This is a question for me. Has creating your own television series ever crossed your mind? If so, what it would be? Yes. I am, and wait till you hear what it's about. Few weeks you'll know. Let me see. Do you feel like your art is always being looked at as being made by a woman or by an African American, and how do you feel about that?

Kara Walker:
I feel, yeah, sometimes those two seem to be mutually exclusive it seems like. Because I'm an African American artist and sometimes I'm a woman artist, and I'm always shocked because I'm less frequently a woman artist than I am an African American artist.

Ava DuVernay:
Really?

Kara Walker:
Yeah. Not always all those things together.

Ava DuVernay:
No, I find those things to be true too. How do you feel about it?

Kara Walker:
How do I feel about it?

Ava DuVernay:
These are simple questions, so they're very basic.

Kara Walker:
Yeah, that's okay. They're very basic questions. How do I feel? Feeling's a really big thing. Let's just say that feelings come and go, they're hot and cold and various temperatures in between. There are days when I feel completely resistant to it. Talking about controversies, I had a piece up that became controversial in Newark in the library, and I had this feeling that nobody knew where it came from. And it seemed really vitally important that these women in the library knew that it came from an African American woman. It wasn't just some random bereted bearded artist who just came up with this thing.

Ava DuVernay:
Context.

Kara Walker:
Yes, context. But I always kind of feel like I'm the little me that I was when I was little and wanted to make art when I'm actually in the process of making it. The thinking about it, and the fretting, and what to do next, and how do I got to do this, all that stuff, it becomes influenced by the who and the what is it that I am, and how is it that this work is going to be undermined by somebody who thinks that my blackness and my woman-ness are not valuable. And then I have to override that, and that's a lot of extra work that you don't really have to do. You shouldn't have to do it.

Ava DuVernay:
You shouldn't have to do it, yeah. Shouldn't have to do it. Can you see the physical sugar sphinx separate from your explorations around the work? Can they be two works? You have a MFA so I'm going to let you decipher...

Kara Walker:
I don't know...

Ava DuVernay:
...what it means.

Kara Walker:
Can you read that one more time? Can I see the physical sugar sphinx...

The Un-Private Collection: Kara Walker and Ava DuVernay, an art talk presented by The Broad museum, held at The Writers Guild Theater on Saturday, October 11, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Ryan Miller/The Broad)
The Un-Private Collection: Kara Walker and Ava DuVernay, an art talk presented by The Broad museum, held at The Writers Guild Theater on Saturday, October 11, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Ryan Miller/The Broad)

Ava DuVernay:

Separate from your explorations around the work?

Kara Walker:
Around my other work?

Ava DuVernay:
Can they be two works?

Kara Walker:
I'm just going to jump in there. So the physical sugar sphinx is gone. She's gone, she exists as a digital file somewhere. She exists on 10 million Instagram pictures, and conversations that people had, and memories that people shared from being in that space. The space itself oddly enough doesn't seem to have been torn down yet.

Ava DuVernay:
Not yet.

Kara Walker:
But I've been waiting for that. And...

Ava DuVernay:
It's interesting, because she's a myth and a memory now.

Kara Walker:
Yeah, yeah. But I think I was kind of going for even as I, I can't say that I was unaware that there would be millions of pictures taken, because we live in that world. I just wasn't aware of just how many gazillions. You don't know what that looks like until you see everybody go...over and over and over.

And as far as the rest of my work and where that goes from here, I mean, I don't know. I know that things have, this sets a precedent, a new set of ways that I can think about working. I don't know if it means it's a sculpture, if it means it's about tackling a challenging space in a different way, and then finding my way into that space, and then finding a solution.

Ava DuVernay:
Good. They say with filmmaking that once you get a big budget it's hard to go back. And everyone tells me, "You'll never go back to make a film for half a million dollars or a million dollars now that you've played with the big toys and tasted the fruits of the studio." So I pose that question to you. Would you find satisfaction in, not going back, but the more kind of handmade or...

Kara Walker:
Yeah. No, I do find satisfaction. My biggest shows before this were sort of large cut-paper works that always felt like too much and too many different possibilities and anxieties presented in the work. And so I always wind up going back, and sitting in my studio, and finding the studio too overwhelming, and just trying to find an intimate understanding of what it is that's interesting to me by writing or small drawings...

Ava DuVernay:
And still being able to find your way.

Kara Walker:
...and trying to be in touch with it. Yeah, that's really important.

Ava DuVernay:
Can we expect to see the woman-mammy-sphinx in any of your future work?

Kara Walker:
Is she going to be recurring as a sphinx? I don't know about as a sphinx, I mean, I have a show coming up that has a lot of preparatory notes and drawings for this piece.

Ava DuVernay:
That's exciting.

Kara Walker:
That's probably it. If she's going to emerge out of my subconscious periodically, we'll have to see.

Ava DuVernay:
We'll have to see. Would you ever switch it up in the future and move your art practice into a new direction?

Kara Walker:
I just did.

Ava DuVernay:
That's what you did, yeah.

Kara Walker:
Just did.

Ava DuVernay:
I think she did that.

Kara Walker:
That's the, are you going to always make work about race? I don't think that that's a question that is really, I think the work is doing some other things that are about power, and it's filtered through a lens that I'm familiar with, which is racialized and sexualized expressions of power, and control, and loss of control.

Ava DuVernay:
Power, subjugation, dominance, yeah, white fear of black bodies.

Kara Walker:
Yeah. And then we can suggest other works that you can look at that are about other things, but I don't do that right now.

 

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