Arion Lyre

98. Porgy & Bessthe libretto by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, illustrated by Kara Walker.

Porgy & Bess, the libretto by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, with 16 lithographs by Kara Walker, and a separate suite of four additional lithographs, November 2013.


My mother is a reserved individual with a strong undertow. My first introduction to Porgy & Bess was through her, although I learned nothing about the opera from her at the time. I must have been quite young, still living in Stockton, California, when she picked up from the library an album of the 1952 William Warfield and Leontyne Price version of the Gershwin opera. My memory is a little dark around the edges, but it seemed to me at the time there was something important about this music and Mom had a particularly private conversation happening with it. Her people came from South Carolina, and, while she never lived there herself, or talked to me about family in those days . . . .
            I have often felt that the appreciation I have for this work is partly owed to the air of personal mystery surrounding it. When I hear the opening of “Summertime”, no matter who is singing, “Daddy’s rich, and your mam is good looking”, I always see my mother nodding conspiratorially at the record, and hear her say “you know what THAT means”… well, I didn’t, at the time. And truly I am still not sure—was she suggesting that Daddy was some rich white man? That Ma some attractive such and such? That the baby of address is not who she thinks she is? I could ask her today, what she meant, but I like that there was nothing straightforward about my earliest knowledge of the music. I just felt all caught up in the piece. Mom’s close reading and clipped silences sort of transforming the whole long and interesting legacy of Porgy & Bess as a work of art. For me, like so many listeners, Porgy & Bess belongs to “The Past”, not a balmy southern thing, but a past that is mine.
            Unable to break free, seems appropriate as a way to describe my images for this edition. It's hard to claim ownership of these characters, and impossible to wrest them away from their archetypal status. They are archetypes beyond the grand opera theme of “star crossed lovers”; they’ve become archetypes of another no less grand drama, that of: “American Negroes drawn up by white authors, and retooled by individual actors, amid charges of racism, and counter charges of high-art on stage and screen, in the face of social and political upheaval, over generations.” Because they are fraught, I chose to simply let them be paper cut-out caricatures whose full dimensions are alluded to by rubbing. In a sense I wanted to subject those paper figures to pressure, satisfying some implied demand that the artist perform with due diligence, an unpacking of the signifiers “Porgy” and “Bess”. But haven’t they been through enough heartbreak?  
            Unlike the bulk of my work, in which I plumb erratically and sometimes dangerously through American history using narrative forms and mis-readings of racist texts as the basis, the Porgy & Bess series of images is quite straightforward, more an homage to the feeling of the music. And to that feeling I had as a child of a heavy atmosphere hanging around a timeless act of love.


Kara Walker was born in Stockton, California, on November 26, 1969, and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. She graduated from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and received her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. She is known for her candidinvestigation of race, gender, sexuality, and violence through silhouetted figures that have appeared in numerous exhibitions worldwide. Her major survey show, Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, premiered at The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, in February 2007 before traveling to ARC / Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, France; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and elsewhere. Other recent solo exhibitions have taken place at the Art Institute of Chicago (2013) and Camden Arts Centre, London (2013). She participated in the Venice International Biennale in 2007 and was the United States representative to the São Paulo Biennial in 2002. She is represented by Sikkema-Jenkins & Co. in New York City.

Walker is the recipient of many awards including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Achievement Award in 1997, the Deutsche Bank Prize in 2000, and United States Artists Eileen Harris Norton Fellowship in 2008. In 2012, she was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her work is included in numerous museums and public collections including The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Tate Gallery, London; the Centro Nazionale per le Arti Contemporanee, Rome; Deutsche Bank, Frankfurt; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She lives and works in New York City.

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