David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the new Jim Crow Museum of Racist Souvenirs, from Ferris University in Michigan describes an incident he experienced while in college that affected his life.
“I went to a historically black college, Jarvis Christian College in Texas, and in addition to teaching the usual math and science, our professors would tell us Jim Crow stories. One day, one of my professors walked into the classroom wearing a baseball cap. chauffeur put down his hat and asked what historical significance it had.
Now, the obvious answer was that blacks were denied many opportunities and chauffeuring was one of the few jobs available to them. But that was not the correct answer. He told us that many middle-class professional blacks in those days always traveled with a chauffeur’s hat. The reason: if they were driving a nice new car through a small southern town, they didn’t want the police officers, or any other white people, to know that the car belonged to them. “
Thus began his collection of racial symbolism which grew in size to form the basis of a new type of museum.
Like David Pilgrim, Kara Walker is also an African American deeply committed to exploring racial symbolism. As a talented young sculptor, she describes her work as an exploration of race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity in her work. At the age of 27 she became the second youngest recipient of the coveted “Genius” grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
In May of last year (2014), Walker released his first sculpture, a monumental piece entitled, A Subtlety, or Wonderful Sugar Baby, a tribute to the overworked and unpaid artisans who have refined our sweet flavors from cane fields to New World kitchens on the occasion of the demolition of the refining plant of Domino sugar.. Set in the sprawling industrial complexes of Brooklyn’s legendary Domino Sugar Factory, at 75 feet long, 35 feet high, and 26 feet wide, it is a gigantic critique of the detestable and dehumanizing history of slavery.
The work is made primarily of sugar and includes a number of figures, including 15 servants carrying empty baskets and bananas. These juvenile slaves move toward a giantess in the center of the room, naked except for a Black Mammie headscarf (think Aunt Jemima). Her sphinx physique is an exaggerated feminine look. “I was thinking about sugar and associations with desire,” explains the artist.
Walker is far from shy about delving into controversial issues in her art. In 1999, the Detroit Institute of Art retired one of his pieces, Means to an End: Shadow Drama in Five Acts when African American artists objected to his presence. Another piece by Walker, titled, The moral arc of the story ideally leans toward justice, but as soon as it doesn’t turn toward barbarism, sadism, and rampant chaos. caused so much controversy among trustees employees of the Newark, NJ Public Library that the library was forced to cover it
Kara Walker continues to be creative in creating her controversial pieces in her studio located in the Garment District in New York City. He also maintains a farmhouse in rural Massachusetts.