A Lesson on Kara Walker

First-year students curate an exhibition of the internationally-renowned artist’s work, which will be on display at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum beginning January 17.

Rollins students in Associate Professor Kimberly Dennis (center) and Cornell Museum of Fine Arts curator Amy Galpin's RCC class preview and discuss prints for this month's upcoming exhibition at CFAM. (Photo by Scott Cook) Rollins students in Associate Professor Kimberly Dennis (center) and Cornell Museum of Fine Arts curator Amy Galpin's RCC class preview and discuss prints for this month's upcoming exhibition at CFAM. (Photo by Scott Cook)

An exhibition opening this month at the Cornell Museum of Fine Arts (CFAM) could hardly arrive at a more apt moment, as the nation’s ongoing discussion about race continues to stir protest and debate.

Into that heightened awareness now comes an exhibition by Kara Walker, who has created a thought-provoking series by reworking notions of race, gender, and identity in the Civil War.

Opening on January 17 and running through April 5, the exhibition titled Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) features 15 prints by Walker. As part of the series, she took illustrations from the pages of the old Harper’s publication, enlarged those images from 1866, and overlayed them with new silhouettes that show the often harrowing lives of slaves.

“Kara Walker is one of the most celebrated artists working in America right now,” says Kimberly Dennis, associate professor of art history. “Her work is very challenging. She challenges our understanding of African-Americans roles in American history and she takes the veil off our tendency to the romanticize the Civil War era.”

The CFAM show is the result of efforts of first-year students enrolled in a Rollins College Conference course taught by Dennis and Amy Galpin, who is curator of the museum. Under their guidance, the students in the course, titled Exhibiting the Self in 21st-Century Visual Culture, learned about the controversial contemporary artist, studied the convulsive period of the 1860s, and created a museum-quality exhibition during the 2014 fall semester.

Students discuss the artist's work. (Photo by Scott Cook) Students discuss the artist's work. (Photo by Scott Cook)

“When I was first introduced to Kara Walker, her art surprised me, and I didn’t know what to make of it,” says Celeste Ewing ’18. “Her method seemed random and didn’t hold any meaning, in my opinion.”

However as Ewing studied the prints and the historical period more deeply, she found “connections between her silhouette and the Harper’s Weekly print. I can now look at her work with a new set of eyes and appreciate it more.”

That’s exactly what Dennis and Galpin hoped would happen as they helped students ready the Walker exhibition for its first showing at Rollins. “I really appreciated the students’ honesty,” Galpin says. “We tackled difficult issues in this class. It was always a special experience when the students opened up and shared their own experiences in relation to race, gender, and class.”

The Walker prints are a gift of Barbara ’68 and Theodore ’68 Alfond and will remain in The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art.

Ewing hopes museumgoers will take time to read the students’ descriptions and commentary that accompany the prints. “I hope the viewer will look deeper than what is on the surface,” she says. “I don’t want the viewer to form an opinion of the exhibition based on first impressions, but to really spend time with the prints and look for the ‘why?’ Her silhouettes can be very grotesque and shocking, but they convey the hardships that African Americans had to endure.”

Galpin believes the public will value a chance to experience the work of the well-known artist, who has had solo shows at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her shows often drawn long lines, as they did in 2014 at her installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn.

“I know many people find Walker’s work to be provocative, and I imagine there will some people who will not be happy with the exhibition,” Galpin says. However, she adds, “our collection does not shy away from the issues of our day.”

Dennis agreed with her teaching partner and praised the students for tackling a very difficult semester-long assignment. “They were both excited and terrified by it,” Dennis says. “As they should be.”