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Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)

2nd floor South, American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, N.W.)
October 13, 2017 – March 11, 2018

Image for Kara Walker:  <em>Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)</em>

Kara Walker, Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats, from the portfolio Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), 2005, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment © 2005, Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Kara Walker is among the most complex and prolific American artists of her generation. She has gained international recognition for her room-size tableaux depicting historical narratives haunted by sexuality, violence, and subjugation, for which she has used the genteel eighteenth-century art of cut-paper silhouettes. The Smithsonian American Art Museum will present the complete set of her print series, Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) for the first time since it was acquired in 2008. In this group of fifteen works, Walker appropriated select illustrations from Harpers’ Pictorial History of the Civil War—a two-volume anthology from 1866—enlarging and overlaying them with dark stenciled figures that depict disturbing imagery, including racial stereotypes and graphic acts of violence. According to the artist, the Civil War prints “are the landscapes that I imagine exist in the back of my somewhat more austere wall pieces.”

In this exhibition, Walker’s works are presented alongside a selection of the original Harper’s prints on which they are based, also drawn from SAAM’s collection. Shown together, the two bodies of work shed light on Walker’s artistic process and her approach to history as an always-fraught, always-contested narrative. In Walker’s hands, the nineteenth-century depictions of battle, death, and retreat become staging grounds for racialized violence and trauma. The ghostly scenes recast the positions of African Americans in history and create a provocative dialogue between the past and the present.

Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) is organized by Sarah Newman, SAAM’s James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art.

Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support has been provided by Crown Equipment Exhibitions Endowment.