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Kara Walker Disrupts the Visual History of the Civil War in New Exhibition

Kara Walker, "Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats", from the portfolio Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), 2005

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Vicious caricatures of Black people proliferated across American visual culture throughout the nineteenth century. Debasing the Black body and casting it as inferior, this imagery was used to justify slavery and legitimize Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation. While revisiting these stereotypes is a painful confrontation many would prefer to avoid, American artist Kara Walker (b. 1969) has maintained a dedicated artistic practice that reflects on the past in order to shed light on the present. Walker’s imagery utilizes these stereotypes to comment on the historical representation of Black people in American visual culture, urging the viewer to consider the continuing legacy of slavery in American consciousness.

This February, the Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society is pleased to open an exhibition of Walker’s work, traveling from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, titled Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated). Created in 2005, this eponymous series of fifteen prints is based on the two-volume anthology published by Harper & Brothers in 1866 and 1868. The text contained 836 pages of lavish landscape scenes, maps, and portraits detailing the military engagements and political strategies of the war. However, both the text and the accompanying illustrations almost entirely omitted Black people and their experience of the Civil War.

To expose this omission, Walker enlarged select illustrations from the original text and overlaid them with caricatured Black cut-paper silhouettes. Foregrounding the inescapable violence of these racial stereotypes, Walker’s forms grab the viewers’ attention and obscure the soldiers and battles depicted as the focus of Harper’s Pictorial History. In the exhibition, Walker’s prints are presented alongside a selection of reproduced illustrations from Harper’s Pictorial History.

Viewed together, the two bodies of work expose the historical erasure of Black people in American history, and create a dialogue between the past and the present. As Walker has stated about her artistic practice: “I’m not making work about reality; I’m making work about images. I'm making work about fictions that have been handed down to me, and I'm interested in those fictions because I'm an artist, and any sort of attempt at getting at the truth of a thing, you kind of have to wade through these levels of fictions, and that's where the work is coming from.”

To contextualize Walker’s prints, the exhibition at New-York Historical features three display cases with materials drawn from the collection. They are broken down into two themes that Walker’s work actively engages with: the history of Harper’s Publishing and the history of the silhouette tradition.

James and John Harper started their New York City publishing house in 1817; their brothers Joseph and Fletcher joined during the 1820s. Their first publishing house was located at 331 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. There, Harper & Brothers Publishing would go on to publish millions of copies of books and magazines. The original title of the book series at the core of this exhibition was Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion, and the cover page featured Lady Columbia leading the way. The book was re-released in the 1890s as Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, well after the end of Reconstruction, with its defanged title reflecting political efforts to bring the South back into the political fabric of the nation.

Harper’s Publishing printed a range of images of African Americans during and after the Civil War. These fell within a wide range of sympathy and respectfulness, largely dictated by the time period in which they were printed. In the exhibition, we’ve featured Thomas Nast’s engraving Emancipation, published only weeks after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. This image contrasts the violence experienced by enslaved African Americans with an imagined future where multi-generational Black families are reunited.

However, this image stands in sharp contrast to later portrayals of African Americans by Thomas Nast. Created in reaction to the Black politicians active in South Carolina during Reconstruction, we also exhibit a derogatory image from 1874 that portrays Black men as subhuman and argues for Black inferiority.

Another focus case demonstrates how Walker’s work is in conversation with the history of the silhouette tradition in the United States. Before the advent of the camera, silhouettes functioned as the democratic form of American portraiture, since the practice did not require extensive training or access to expensive materials. Women and men across the United States embraced the cut-paper silhouette to preserve their likenesses throughout the 1800s. By the 1840s the silhouette craze was in full swing.

Their popularity is attributed, in part, to Johann Caspar Lavater, a Swiss German writer. He argued that a person’s moral character could be read by the form of their silhouette, a phenomenon that he termed “physiognomy.” We exhibit a book that Lavater published on this topic in 1789, which includes a section dedicated to women, moral character, and silhouettes. Notably, Lavater’s theory also became the basis for phrenology, the theory that the bumps on the head can be used to predict mental traits, which was used to uphold slavery.

What becomes clear from the series of historical silhouettes we exhibit in our focus case is how deeply intertwined the histories of silhouette portraiture and slavery are in the United States. Slaveholding families also used this practice to commission portraits of enslaved Black people, a gesture of inherent objectification. Enslavers used silhouettes to reaffirm their ownership over enslaved people when they escaped to seek their freedom. Newspaper ads became a core means of limiting their movement, and enslavers tried to capture them by putting out ads describing each individual’s physical traits. Newspapers paired these descriptions with a silhouette, gendered male or female, in motion and holding a bundle. In a “runway ad” highlighted in the focus case, a reward is offered for a missing enslaved two-year-old girl named Henrietta.

By contextualizing Walker’s prints with materials stemming directly from the histories the artist is reflecting on – the history of civil war imagery and the history of the cut-paper silhouette tradition – the exhibition Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) at  New-York Historical allows viewers to meditate on long genealogy of stereotype and the ways that the affluent used visual imagery to objectify Black people and uphold the system of slavery. Presented in New York for the first time, Walker’s prints invite the viewer to consider history as an always-fraught, always-contested narrative.

The exhibition Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), Walker’s series of 15 prints responding to the two-volume anthology Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion (1866) is on view from February 24 – June 11, 2023 in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery of the New-York Historical Society. Traveling from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the exhibition has been contextualized by the Center for Women’s History at New-York Historical with images, objects, and documents from its collections.