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Object of the Week: Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels

Photographer Imogen Cunningham was not naturally inclined to stay home. Throughout her long and prolific career she travelled and exhibited widely, was celebrated for her portraits ranging from the rich-and-famous to the anonymous citizens of San Francisco, and even became a minor celebrity late in her life, appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and easily identified walking her hometown’s streets with her iconic black cape and peace sign pin.

For a brief period in between all of this activity, Cunningham was more-or-less bound to her home. In 1917, she moved with her 18-month-old son from Seattle to San Francisco to join her husband; less than one month later, she gave birth to twins. As the mother of three young children, her life was suddenly largely circumscribed by the boundaries of the family’s Oakland home. But Cunningham did not allow these circumstances to impede her work—her ambition and drive would, simply, not allow for it. Instead, she turned inward to subjects within her home—or more accurately, created subjects within her home—by cultivating a garden in her backyard.

In a 1959 interview, Cunningham recalled: “The reason I really turned to plants was because I couldn’t get out of my own backyard when my children were small.”[1] And later, with her characteristic sharp wit: “I photographed the plants in my garden and steered my children around at the same time.”[2] True enough about the circumstances, but these direct statements belie the care and attention with which Cunningham shot her celebrated botanical works, such as Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels (1925).

Tightly framing her composition, Cunningham makes the subject of this work not the plant as a whole, but rather the innermost folds and stamen of the blooming magnolia flower. The luscious gradients of white in the petals, the play of shadows on the stamen, and the sharpness with which these details are captured serves to abstract the blossom, allowing us as viewers to see this familiar subject in a new way. This technique was at the heart of a new form of modernist photography, and Cunningham’s experimentations in her own garden were at the forefront of this aesthetic shift. It would not be until 1932 when a group of artists—including Cunningham, along with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and others—would formalize this style of photography under a collective they dubbed Group f/64, named for the smallest aperture setting that captures the kind of sharpness we see in Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels.

Years later in 1957, after her children had grown and she’d long-since left the garden to experiment with other techniques and subjects, Cunningham returned to her earlier themes by capturing another artist and mother, at home and at work, in her portrait of Ruth Asawa with four of her children. The scene must have been familiar to Cunningham, and it was no mistake that she framed Asawa’s biomorphic, hanging sculpture at the center of the composition: at the heart of it all, she seems to suggest, is the work that drives us.

When SAM reopens its doors, you will be able to find Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture in the exhibition Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920-2020. And November 2021 will bring together nearly 200 of Cunningham’s photographs, along with sculpture by Asawa, in the exhibition Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective. Until then, as we all stay home, may their work inspire you to continue the work that drives you, whatever that may be.

Carrie Dedon, SAM Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today! Your financial support powers Stay Home with SAM and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again.

[1] Imogen Cunningham and Edna Tartaul Daniel, Imogen Cunningham: Portraits, Ideas, and Design (Berkeley: University of California Regional Cultural History Project, 1961), 26.
[2] Imogen Cunningham, in Brooks Johnson, ed., Photography Speaks: 150 Photographer On Their Art (New York: Aperture, 2005), 120.
Images: Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels, 1925, Imogen Cunningham, gelatin silver print, 11 1/4 x 8 1/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.67 © (1925), 2009 Imogen Cunningham Trust. Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957, Imogen Cunningham, Gelatin silver print, 10 3/8 x 10 3/8 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.43
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Object of the Week: Fireman’s Coat

April showers may bring May flowers, but the passing of the clouds bring clear nights to see the bright face of the moon. Moon gazing isn’t an easy task here in the Pacific Northwest, especially with all the rainstorms and grey days; however, in East Asian countries, Moon Viewing is a popular mid-autumn festival for celebrating the harvest and contemplating the beauty of the night sky. In Japan, this is called Tsukimi, and is held on the 15th day to the 18th day of the eighth lunar month––so, sometime in September or October, depending on year. In the past it was time to write waka, a form of Japanese poetry, which originated within the aristocracy. Today, Tsukimi is celebrated all over Japan with displays of pampas grass and white balls of mochi (sweet rice cakes).

At the Asian Art Museum, we have our own example of Tsukimi revelry in the form of a 19th century hikeshi banten, or a commoner’s fireman coat. Made of tough cotton to impede burning debris, this coat has a surprisingly playful depiction of rabbits on their hind-legs, pounding at a vessel of mochi. Made of glutinous rice, mochi needs to be pounded to make the smooth, stretchy texture for which it is known.

The video above shows families making mochi at the Mochi Tsuki Festival on Bainbridge Island, WA. People enjoy mochi today all over Japan. It can be found in Seattle’s Japanese grocery stores too! Have you ever tried it before? One of the most popular ways to eat it is wrapping the soft, squishy mochi over a sweet filling, like red bean paste or chocolate cream.

So why rabbits? At first glance it would seem odd to connect these bunnies to mochi creation, or Tsukimi at all. However, in terms of mythology, rabbits have a lot to do with both. In the West, we have a fairy tale about the man in the moon, so created by how the moon’s dark craters seem to mimic the features of a face. In many Eastern folktales, however, it is not a human face, but a rabbit. Specifically, it is a rabbit with a mortar and pestle. In China, this is because the rabbit is a companion to the moon goddess, and pounds her medicine of immortality. In Japan and Korea, this rabbit pounds mochi, and has an entirely different reason for being engraved on the moon. In the Konjaku Monogatarishu, a collection of tales from the Heian Period, the story is told like this:

A long time ago, the Man of the Moon came down to Earth in secret in the guise of an old man. There, he came across three friends: monkey, fox, and rabbit, who had all taken a vow of charity. To them, he begged for food.

The monkey, being nimble, brought him fruit. The fox, being clever, brought him fish. The rabbit, only able to gather grass, had nothing to offer. So he asked the old man to light a fire and jumped into it, offering his own body as a meal.

The old man changed quickly back to the Man of the Moon and pulled the rabbit from the fire. He was deeply touched by such sacrifice and said “Rabbit, you are a kind creature, but do not give yourself up for me. As you were kindest of all, you may come and live with me upon the moon.” The rabbit agreed, and was carried to his new home. He is still there to this day. If you look up at the moon, you can see his figure upon it.

Between the flame that the rabbit tossed himself into, and his associations to the moon and food, it seems a little clearer why there would be the image of a mochi-pounding rabbit on a fireman’s coat. The rabbit was miraculously pulled from the flame and provided honor for his sacrifice––the perfect emblem of protection for a fireman.

Listen to actor Hudson Yang discuss this artwork.

Even with social distancing, we can still look up and see the rabbit, pounding away at mochi on the surface of the moon. It makes you wonder if he is an essential worker, too, and whether they have such worries in the night sky. When the Asian Art Museum reopens, you can see this rabbit hikeshi-banten on view in the galleries as a fine example of what would have once defined a fireman.

Kennedy Simpson, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

Images: Fireman’s coat, 19th century, Japanese, cotton, 49 1/4 x 49 1/4 in., Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001.417

Object of the Week: Woman Playing a Harp

In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of March.

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) was born in Switzerland, but she traveled extensively throughout Europe in her early life. She started painting by assisting her father, a muralist, but she was somewhat of a child prodigy who quickly developed her own career as a history painter and portraitist, which soon supported both her and her father. At age 25, she moved to London, where she made such an impact on the arts community and market that a contemporary quipped, “The whole world has gone Angelica-mad.”[1] At age 27, she was elected as one of two female members of London’s newly-formed Royal Academy of Arts (RA). Kauffman’s trademark was to put female subjects first and foremost, and she often used her own likeness. Her Neoclassical personifications of art were more than the inert Renaissance damsels commonly used: they were women artists (see Self-Portrait Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting below). Pretty impressive stuff.

Self-Portrait Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting

But even knowing this illustrious resume, the feeling that pervades this possible self-portrait Woman Playing a Harp (ca. 1778) is one of uncertainty. The woman’s fingers seem too hesitant to be making any sound, and her eyes telegraph a wariness of her audience. My reading could be influenced by the strange times we currently find ourselves in, but I don’t think it’s just me. A Seattle Art Museum staff member, working from home, gave this painting new life as a quality art meme.

The more I looked into Angelica Kauffman’s work, the more I witnessed refreshing moments of “un-confidence.” Just look at Self-Portrait Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting (1791). Kauffman was a talented cellist and singer, and as a young woman she was torn between a career in painting and one in the opera. This self-portrait honestly portrays the common agony of having to choose a life path, decades after Kauffman chose painting. Many women today can likely identify with this feeling: you can be London’s finest hostess, speak five languages, take the art world by storm, and still feel completely unsure and inadequate sometimes. And that’s okay.

Admittedly, there are benefits to being multi-talented. Kauffman was commissioned not only for portraits and history paintings, but also for decorative work that adorned some of England’s greatest estates. However, her practice was not easily categorized in a culture of male super-painters, and this brought its own challenges. In the words of painter and Kauffman scholar Sarah Pickstone, “She was so flexible as an artist, making furniture decorations, ceiling decorations, that when the Victorians came along, they dismissed her as a purely decorative artist, and I think that can sometimes happen to women’s work.”[2] Kauffman’s history as a founding member of the RA was largely erased after her death, and over a century passed before the academy elected any more female members.[3]

Kauffman’s legacy has started to shift, however, as creative historians have come to appreciate her complex life and practice, including those “feminine” decorative arts. It follows a promising trend toward women being valued for their professional activities and qualities outside of a patriarchal framework. The RA is bringing Kauffman back into their history by planning a major exhibition of her work for Summer 2020. Though it may likely be postponed, as the museum is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus, that’s just another uncertainty we will have to embrace.

Linnea Hodge, SAM Curatorial Coordinator

[1] Brighton Museums, “Angelica Kauffman: An Eighteenth-Century ‘Wunderkind,’” 19 February 2015, https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2015/02/19/angelica-kauffman-an-eighteenth-century-wunderkind
[2] Royal Academy of Arts podcast, “Sarah Pickstone and Rommi Smith discuss Angelica Kauffman,” 3 April 2018
[3] Annette Wickham, “A ‘Female Invasion’ 250 Years in the Making,” 13 May 2018
Images: Woman Playing a Harp, ca. 1778,Angelica Kauffman, oil on canvas, 34 7/8 x 27 1/4 in., Gift of Mrs. Lew V. Day in memory of her husband, 66.63. Self-portrait of the Artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting, 1794, Angelica Kauffman, oil on canvas, 70 x 98 in., Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire

Object of the Week: Weltempfänger

In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of March.

“My antennas were also meant to be ‘feelers,’ things you stretch out to feel something, like the sound of the world and its many tones.”[1]

– Isa Genzken

Metal antennae extend full-length from a series of seven objects resembling vintage shortwave radios. Heads tilt and ears pique while viewing Isa Genzken’s Weltempfänger—translated literally as “world receivers”—expecting the cast concrete to make audible the signals they’ve received from unknown sources. Although silent, the antennae appear deliberately and mysteriously tuned at slight angles; they must be picking up something. Can’t we hear it, or are we not listening––or looking––hard enough?

Isa Genzken (German, b. 1948) is regarded as one of the most influential contemporary artists of the last 40 years, working in sculpture and a variety of multidisciplinary media. In the late 1970s to early 80s, Genzken gained prominence for her series of floor-based sculptures in the complex and elegant shapes of Ellipsoids and Hyperbolos. Handcrafted in lacquered wood from computer designs created in collaboration with physicist Ralph Krotz, the elongated, colorful sculptures drew from the geometric forms of Minimalism, but offered more nuanced connections to industrial design, digital technology, and commercial production. During this same period in 1982, Genzken exhibited her only stand-alone readymade sculpture, a functional radio receiver entitled Weltempfänger (World Receiver), which solidified her continued interests in consumer culture, value, and material.

By the late 1980s, Genzken departed abruptly from the refined forms of her ellipsoids to rough-hewn sculptures made of concrete and plaster. She began an ongoing series, casting concrete weltempfängersof various sizes and groupings, where the receivers take on symbolic roles of relics or ruins rather than functional devices, such as the 1982 readymade. The simple forms are layered with meaning. Together, the radio, a medium of power or opposition, and concrete, a material of ruin or reconstruction, evoke connections to a postwar Germany that Genzken experienced firsthand. More broadly, the receivers ask us to consider how communication is transmitted and received, and how we decide what is made permanent or temporary.

In this present moment, the receivers offer a resonance more immediate. Facing a public health crisis that compels us to connect more and more through technology, and to seek out news and facts in order to keep our communities safe, these world receivers provide a moment to “stretch out to feel something,” and to contemplate how we look, listen, and decide what we value and make permanent for the future.

Philip Nadasdy, SAM Associate Director of Public Engagement

P.S. Weltempfänger also makes an excellent group costume! Here’s SAM’s curatorial team on Halloween, 2019.

Images: Weltempfänger, 2018, Isa Genzken, concrete, brick, and metal antennae in seven parts, overall: 62 x 54 x 20 in., Purchased with funds provided by Virginia Wright and the Contemporary Collectors Forum. Additional support provided by Jon and Kim Shirley, Ann and Bruce Blume, Lynn and Mikal Thomsen, and Carol Kipling and David Tseklenis., 2018.13 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Isa Genzken, Ellipsoids and Hyperbolos, Kunsthalle Wien, 2014. Weltempfänger (World Receiver), 1982, Isa Genzken, Multiband radio receiver. Photo: Natali Wiseman.
[1] Diedrich Diederichsen, “Diedrich Diederichsen in Conversation with Isa Genzken,” in Alex Farquharson et al., Isa Genzken (London: Phaidon, 2006), 25; reprinted in Lisa Lee, ed., Isa Genzken (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 120.

Object of the Week: Untitled

In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of March.

Broad black strokes cut across paper, precise sweeps of motion that hold bold strength. Ink trails downward in sharp ribbons dissolving into mist, which run down into watery pools. The shape is abstract, yet gives a sense of dynamism and flow that fully utilizes the monochromatic black that it’s painted in. This piece, left untitled by abstract artist and calligrapher Toko Shinoda, is not intended to have specific form. Instead it seeks to capture a feeling, although what that feeling may be, we’ll never know for certain. Each piece of art she makes is a piece of herself, and each is made meticulously to reflect the “her” that painted it.

At around 107 years old, Shinoda has had a lot of “her” to paint. The daughter of a calligrapher herself, Shinoda has been using a brush and sumi ink since she was six, and has not stopped using them since. For the first 40 years of her life, she focused on calligraphy; an art form traditional to Japanese women, as well as one of few career paths initially open to them. She was extremely successful and exhibited her works all over Japan. The more Shinoda created, the more abstract her pieces became. This resulted in a shift toward Abstract Expressionist art after an exhibition in New York in 1953. Having spent so much of her career trying to strictly copy the work of master calligraphers, she was impressed by the formal freedom of American artists. Abstract Expressionism, she felt, was what she really wanted to achieve with her ink.

Since then, Shinoda has gained international acclaim for her prolific melding of traditional and modern approaches. However, despite her fame, she denies all awards and recognition. Time magazine might write about her, museums may acquire her work and display them in a place of high regard, but she will not take any titles or cash gifts for her accomplishments. The only honor she has accepted is a set of stamps: hers are the first artworks by a living artist to be featured on official Japanese stamps.

Even now, Shinoda paints every day to keep her art, and herself, alive. It is said that all artists go through a process called 守破離 (shu-ha-ri) in their lifetimes. The “shu” being adherence to art form and tradition, the “ha” being a departure from it. Shinoda embodies the final step, “ri”: transcendence through focus and mastery that allows for creative freedom. Still, even though Shinoda is free in her creation, she refuses to be satisfied by the style she developed, and strives to master delicacy in her work. Discontented with safety in art, she will always paint things that require precise balance, capturing that fleeting moment of experience and self.

– Kennedy Simpson, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

Image: Untitled, 1965, Toko Shinoda, lithograph, 25 3/4 x 19 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 66.11 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Focus No. 37

In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of March.

From across a gallery, Focus No. 37 looks like the face of someone seen in passing. The person might appear vaguely familiar, prompting the viewer to stop and focus. But the face does not become any clearer after directing attention to the image, or moving closer. Instead, it is the white threads that wind across the surface of the portrait to form a neat braid that become more visible. The threads further obscure an already out-of-focus photograph, making the individual’s age and gender seem ambiguous.

This work is part of the Focus series by artist Lin Tianmiao, who created multiple portraits of herself, family members, and friends modified by her thread-winding technique. Her artistic practice often involves materials associated with domestic labor and the Chinese household during the 1960s and 70s. Reflecting on her personal association with white cotton thread, Lin recalls the childhood chore of unwinding old uniforms and gloves provided by state-owned “work units,” or danwei, and rewinding them into sweaters, tablecloths, hats, and curtains for family use or to exchange with relatives and friends.1

Speaking about the connection between her choice of materials and her own memories, Lin remarks, “When I look back at the materials I chose over the years and think about why I chose thread and other soft materials, I think it has to do with my personal experience. When I was a child, my [mom] sometimes asked me to help her with housework. It was actually like a form of corporal punishment in that it stamped a physical memory on me. When I came back [to China] from America and saw those kinds of materials again, I thought to myself: this is it, these are going to be my materials. It happened very naturally. Also, since I did a lot of housework when I was a child, it helped me acquire endurance and tenacity.” 2

While the thread in Focus No. 37 does produce the effect of obscuring the photograph beneath, the central braid humanizes an anonymous face by bringing to mind a familiar haptic act. Just as Lin Tianmiao describes her memories of housework, the viewer might think about their experiences braiding someone’s hair, having their own hair braided, or someone they know with braided hair. In this way, the work raises the question of how identity is formed. Individuals are not only defined by their outward appearance, but also by their everyday actions and practices.

Yaoyao Liu, SAM Museum Educator

1 https://asiasociety.org/blog/asia/interview-lin-tianmiao-art-influence-and-bodily-reaction-inspiration

2 https://www.tate.org.uk/research/research-centres/tate-research-centre-asia/women-artists-contemporary-china/lin-tianmiao

Image: Focus No. 37, 2004, Lin Tian Miao, black-and-white photograph on vinyl with white embroidery, 55 1/8 × 66 15/16 in., General Acquisition Fund, 2004.25, © Lin Tianmiao.

Object of the Week: Artist with African Inspiration

Meschac Gaba takes much inspiration from the streets of Cotonou, Benin, the city where he was born. The artist, full of clarity and humor about the nature of his work, understands the power of art in social environments. 

After finding millions (Gaba’s estimate) of cut banknotes on the street, the artist started incorporating money into his work. This was the early 1990s, when Benin first devalued currency, and Gaba was fascinated. 

In Artist with African Inspiration: Salle de Francophonie (2004), Gaba prints new images on a West African 1000 CFA franc. On the back of the original bill, a chalkboard appears on the lower right side with the letters “abc” in cursive. However, Gaba replaces the letters and uses the chalkboard to frame his own face—smiling. On the left side of the bill appears an image of one of the artist’s braided hair sculptures as well. It’s a small revision, and it’s cheeky. 

Gaba employs the same intervention with an American dollar bill in Artist with American Inspiration: 4 World Financial Center, swapping out our stately eagle for his face (again, smiling). One of Gaba’s sculptures appears on the left as well. These could be read as ironic: an act of empowerment or a moment of tongue-in-cheek capitalist self-promotion.

However you might interpret his actions, Gaba uses everyday objects to continually play with questions of global trade and economy, and call attention to the modern conditions that drive us to constantly earn, measure, and compete against one another. Through his artistic practice, he questions who can be an artist, and how artists can create space.

Jenae Williams, Exhibitions and Publications Associate

Artist with African Inspiration: Salle de Francophonie, 2004, Meschac Gaba, pigmented inkjet print, 17 15/16 x 35 1/16in., Gift of Vascovitz Family, 2012.22.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Artist with American Inspiration: 4 World Financial Center, 2004, Meschac Gaba, pigmented inkjet print, 18 1/8 x 42 15/16 in., Gift of Vascovitz Family, 2012.22.1 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Uncle Thomas

Despite becoming interested in art relatively late in life, Titus Kaphar quickly built an impressive career by blurring the line between art and activism. Through his use of paint, tar, sculpting, and a wide range of other techniques, Kaphar uses his work to recontextualize and reimagine the way we look at history. This includes literal instances of altering history by crumpling, shredding, and reforming well-known images.

With his 2008 painting Uncle Thomas, Kaphar uses his gift for portraiture to shift an age-old archetype. The term “Uncle Tom,” named after the lead character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, has long been used to promote a picture of blackness that centers on obedience and servitude. In this work from SAM’s collection, Kaphar takes inspiration from his real-life uncle Thomas to display his updated perception of the name. By placing his uncle—a well-respected, land-owning black man—at the center of Uncle Thomas, Kaphar exchanges an image of servitude and oppression for one of strength, dignity, and authority. During Black History Month especially, Kaphar’s art represents an important example of empowerment and support within one’s own community.

This work is less experimental than other pieces Kaphar has created in more recent years, but its bold confrontation of history is representative of the artist’s larger body of work. Kaphar’s willingness to challenge complicated historical narratives directly through images has driven him to work with Time magazine and receive several accolades, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2018. Through his unique approach, Kaphar is altering the way many view our nation’s past while shining a light on the unheard voices and forgotten faces of history.

Michael Miller, SAM Communications Intern

Image: Uncle Thomas, 2008, Titus Kaphar, tar on paper, 48 x 36 in., Contemporary Art Support Fund, 2009.31 © Titus Kaphar

Object of the Week: I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated Black artists in SAM’s collection throughout the month of February.

Kara Walker’s particular mode of engaging with our attention spans—her visual and conceptual provocations—have often caused furor, first from the generation above her, now not infrequently from the generation below. For when it comes to the ruins of history, Walker neither simply represents nor reclaims. Instead she eroticizes, aestheticizes, fetishizes, and dramatizes.

Zadie Smith, What Do We Want History to Do to Us?, The New York Review of Books, February 2020

With a prolific and controversial career spanning decades, Kara Walker is perhaps best known for her use of cut-paper installations that give visual form to the histories of racism, violence, and subjugation in the antebellum South. Walker’s unsettling images mine eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stereotypes and ideologies and consider the legacies of slavery today.

This lithographic print in SAM’s collection, I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, is a relatively modest work compared to larger installations and sculptures since realized by Walker. However, the print is an early work, dating to 1995-96—one year after receiving her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and two years before receiving the MacArthur “Genius” award at just 27 years old. Walker has since gone on to produce major sculptural works, such as Fons Americanus (2019-20) in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014) sited in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory. 

In this graphic work, a woman holds a dripping rope or do-rag[1] before a monkey—a recurring figure in Walker’s work and, together with the title, often read as an allusion to the scientific racism used to justify the enslavement of African women, men, and children. Regarding her use of the silhouette figure, Walker explains:

The silhouette technique announced itself to me as I was researching the cultural identity of early America. In many ways as a form it succeeded in being both a minimal reduction and a means to cover a lot of territory. With the technique one is talking both about the shadow as a form by making a paper cut, but also shadow as the subconscious in psychology. I surprised myself, actually, when I began working [by] how well it…seemed to exemplify the experience of women and blacks as second class citizens. This was a craft form that was (and is) everywhere, but rarely attains a high status. Silhouette cutting, for me, was my rebellion against high art and painting, and to me a way of undermining the patriarchal tendency in Western art.[2]

Producing work that has received praise and criticism in equal parts, Walker is a provocative and challenging contemporary figure who offers a challenging portrait of American history. Probing the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and power, Walker intends to make work where, as she describes, “viewer[s]…get pulled into history, into fiction, into something totally demeaning and possibly very beautiful.”[3]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate


[1] Julia Szabo, “Kara Walker’s Shock Art,” The New York Times, March 23, 1997, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/23/magazine/kara-walker-s-shock-art.html
[2] Kara Walker, “Art Talk with Kara Walker,” interview by Paulette Beete, National Endowment for the Arts, February 1, 2012, https://www.arts.gov/art-works/2012/art-talk-kara-walker
[3] “Kara Walker,” ArtNet, accessed February 12, 2020, http://www.artnet.com/artists/kara-walker/
I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, 1995-96, Kara Walker, lithograph, 39 1/2 x 35 in., Print Acquisition Fund and gift of P. Raaze Garrison, 99.61 1995-96 © Kara Walker