They Waz Nice White Folks While They Lasted (Sez One Gal to Another)

Kara Walker (American, 1969-)

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In this installation, characters cut from black paper perform mysterious actions before the projected backdrop of a great steamboat. A boy bears a miniature battleship on his head, a woman waves a handkerchief while a seemingly monstrous baby teeters on her bustle, a shoe becomes a hoof-like appendage, a figure raises a portrait bust. In smaller cutout vignettes, a woman points a gun at a man's back, and lovers embrace.

Kara Walker draws from familiar narratives of the past to offer a challenging picture of history. Placing dress, machinery, and gestures associated with the antebellum South in unexpected arrangements, Walker's work exploits the ambiguity of race-relations in United States history. The viewer's shadow enters this tableau as a participant or visible witness. The projected background places the silhouettes in perspective. Similarly, Walker's work suggests that perspectives on history are marked by projections of one's self upon views of the past.

Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

This room-size installation suggests themes from both romance novels and slave narratives set in the antebellum South. Manipulating a craft-cut-paper silhouettes-practiced by privileged young women during the 19th century, Kara Walker's fictional narratives are intentionally ambiguous and bizarre. Here, black paper silhouettes of stereotyped African American figures watch a departing steamboat, which is cast onto the wall from an overhead projector positioned in the middle of the room. The woman on the left waves a handkerchief that directs the viewer's attention to a small pair of figures standing near the ship's funnel, where a black woman holds a man-a Civil War soldier or the ship's captain?-at gunpoint. Nearby, a young couple kisses, seemingly unaware of the violent encounter. The details of the large silhouettes add to the strangeness of the scene: the boy carries a battleship on his head; a baby with an enormous, balloonlike head threatens to topple from its mother's back; a woman's foot transforms into a hooflike appendage, while the figure beside her mysteriously holds up a portrait bust.

This installation represents the first time that Walker has introduced an illuminated projection into her work. When visitors enter the space to study the unsettling scene before them, the projector's light throws their shadows into the enigmatic narrative, forcing them to become part of it.

The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that's also what the stereotype does.
-Kara Walker, 1996

Object Information

Kara Walker (American, 1969-)
creation date
cut paper and projection installation
168 x 168 x 240 in. (installation)
accession number
credit line
Gift of the Contemporary Art Society
© Kara Walker
Contemporary Art

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