It’s the first day of my internship with the Nasher Museum’s Marketing and Communications Department. Walking into the museum, I’m unsure of what to expect. How do marketing and communications positions interact with the actual works of art? I applied to intern at the Nasher because I am compelled by art and aesthetics and want to learn about the inner workings of art museums, which have captivated me since I was little. I meet my supervisor and receive my first assignment: I am to be a “visitor” in The Collection Galleries and report back on my experience.
I first approach the information desk and ask the friendly woman there, “What is the ‘coolest’ room in the Wilson Pavilion? Which room has modern art that connects more to contemporary life?” She smiles and tells me I should check out the Kara Walker exhibition that’s only here until Sunday, March 5, 2017. When I walk into The Collection Galleries, I take her recommendation and make a beeline for that gallery. The exhibition is entitled Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated). Walker has placed black paper-cut silhouettes on top of original illustrations from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War to communicate a criticism of how the book presents the black population’s experience throughout the Civil War.
The exhibition draws me in immediately. Walker’s pieces are in large black frames, arranged on the walls in such a way that I feel immersed in the emotions and thoughts she put behind her art. The room is charged with uninhibited intensity and emotion, which I perceive through Walker’s stark, expressive black silhouettes that seem to challenge and amend what is portrayed in the Harper’s illustrations. As I look at some illustrations from an 1894 copy of Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, which are on loan from Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, I am struck by the contrast between the book’s glorification of military events and Walker’s focus on the conditions and experiences of the black population during the period. The pieces prompt me to reflect upon how I was taught U.S. history and how the framing of those historical narratives has influenced racism, stereotypes and micro-aggressions in contemporary American society.
Kara Walker’s exhibit is intense, emotional and enthralling. By allowing visitors to experience art that makes such a clear statement, the Nasher is also making a statement. After just one day as an intern, it’s clear that I am working at an art museum that doesn’t shy away from diversity or discussion. I’m looking forward to a semester of more interactions with art that challenges me and compels the Triangle community to continue visiting this amazing museum.
Click here to see photos from a recent performance by Thomas F. DeFrantz and SLIPPAGE, inspired by Kara Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)