An African American artist known for her racially charged art addressing slavery and its legacy, is to be Tate Modern’s next commission for its Turbine Hall.
Kara Walker is probably best known for her use of black cut-paper silhouetted figures to depict scenes of horror. She shot to fame in 1994, when using them to create a room-size mural featuring rape and dismemberment of African American women and children by cheerful white men, and lynched black men dangling from tree branches.
Two years later, Walker became one of the youngest ever recipients of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, aged 27.
The choice of the artist to create the prestigious Hyundai commission comes at a time when far-right populism is on the rise. In the US, the election of Donald Trump and a series of police shootings of young black men have prompted fears that civil rights gains are being reversed.
Frances Morris, the Tate Modern director, said: “Kara Walker fearlessly tackles some of the most complex issues we face today. Her work addresses history and identity with a powerful directness, but also with great understanding, nuance and wit. Seeing her respond to the industrial scale of the Turbine Hall – and the wider context of London and British history – is a hugely exciting proposition.”
The details of her creation for the Tate Modern have not been revealed but, since she first came to prominence in the mid-1990s, Walker has been making waves for her candid explorations of race, gender, sexuality and violence.
Her work, including drawings, prints, murals, shadow puppets, projections and large-scale sculptural installation, has often provoked controversy. Walker, whose work has referenced the Confederate states of America, has said in the past that galleries in the south have refused to show her work. She has also faced opposition from older African American artists such as Betye Saar, who campaigned to get Walker’s work banned from public galleries, arguing it played into white stereotypes of black people.
Walker has said her art “makes people queasy. And I like that queasy feeling.”
Her first large-scale public commission opened in the derelict Domino sugar refinery in Brooklyn in 2014, addressing the history of sugar production and its inextricable link with slavery. Over 10 metres high and 23 metres long, A Subtlety was a monumental sculpture of a sphinx-like figure, covered in sugar and surrounded by smaller figures made of toffee, brown sugar and molasses.
She has since designed and directed a production of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma for the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015.
Most recently, she created The Katastwóf Karavan 2017, a musical installation as part of the Prospect.4 triennial in New Orleans. A calliope (steam-powered organ) set inside a steel wagon and encircled by silhouetted figures played songs of African American resistance.
Previous memorable Turbine Hall commissions have included Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project installation, inviting people to lie down and bask in dazzling fake sunlight, Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds, and Carsten Höller’s hair-raising slides.
Walker’s work for the Turbine Hall will be open to the public from Wednesday 2 October 2019 to Sunday 5 April 2020.