Kara Walker’s art spotlighted at Fisher

“Kara Walker: Cut to the Quick” opens for viewing at the Fisher Museum of Art.

Daijah Williams, a student curator, discussed the exhibit with art collector Jordan Schnitzer and President Carol Folt, all of whom delivered speeches at the exhibit’s Thursday evening preview. (Emma Silverstein / Daily Trojan)

While at first glance, the striking black-and-white artworks on display at the USC Fisher Museum of Art appear to be artifacts of a bygone era, this multimedia collection tells stories of Black history in the United States from a modern perspective. Artist Kara Walker transforms the paper-cut silhouette from a bourgeois trend among white families of the 19th century to contextualize the generational experiences and trauma of Black Americans that leads up to the present day.

“Kara Walker: Cut to the Quick” is an exhibit first curated by Dr. Susan Edwards and Ciona Rouse of Nashville’s Frist Art Museum in 2021; USC’s Fisher Museum of Art is the fifth stop on the exhibit’s two-year-long tour across the United States. It is comprised of over 80 art pieces from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has amassed over 20,000 works since Schnitzer began collecting art nearly four decades ago.

Danielle Sommer, the assistant curator at the Fisher Museum, noted that the adaptation of “Cut to the Quick” for Fisher was a six-month process, involving the expertise and feedback of local ambassadors as well as student curators. The students worked from June to August leading up to the exhibit’s grand opening Thursday.

“When you get a traveling exhibition, you want to do something that makes sense for the institution that is hosting it,” Sommer said. “I started working with the student curators to identify the themes that they wanted to talk about, and then we also pulled in an ambassador’s committee that had people from USC and from neighborhood arts organizations, like the California African American Museum.”

“Cut to the Quick,” the name of the exhibit, is derived from the poem “Silhouette” by Ciona Rouse. On a superficial level, this title references Walker’s signature art style, in which her silhouettes are physically cut out of black paper. However, beneath the surface, the title alludes to the abuse that the Black community has suffered and endured at the hands of [an] oppressive society for centuries, a hardship which has created “wounds that have never [healed],” Sommer said.

Walker defies the convention that an artist is confined to one medium or method of creating art. The Foundation’s eclectic collection, spanning Walker’s career from 1994 to 2019, demonstrates her flexibility and multidimensionality as an artist, a quality translated from lithographs to bronze sculptures to paper-cut artwork within books.

Through her artwork, Walker critiques the stereotypes rooted in racism and sexism which have defamed and disserviced Black Americans for decades. By superimposing black silhouette portraits on images taken from the white pages of history textbooks, she challenges the notion of Black inferiority in order to prioritize the narratives and experiences of the Black community that have been silenced for so long.

“What’s really special about this is the fact that we’ve got so many different types of work from different decades all together, so you can really see where she’s pushed herself as an artist,” Sommer said. “[Walker’s art is] formally just beautiful. The images, the stereotypes are ugly, but the form and the composition are beautiful; she’s almost a historian of visual culture.”

By leaving her artwork’s meaning intentionally ambiguous, Walker lets her audience derive their own conclusions about the stories she tells through her work. Student curators Kymia Freeman, a junior majoring in public relations, and Amaya Nakpodia, a senior majoring in cinematic arts, film and television production, found a sense of fulfillment in their roles as interpreters of Walker’s art.

“Her work asks you to see it for what it is, but also to step aside and let other people do the same,” Nakpodia said. “I think it’s very interesting that one piece can mean so many different things depending on the viewer.”

Freeman, who specialized in the written elements of the exhibition during her tenure, lamented that “so much of American history is a series of purposeful forgetting.”

“Kara Walker’s work is a process of active remembering,” Freeman said. “What’s so impactful about her work is that she is making it a point to bring stories that have been purposefully forgotten to the public eye, so that they aren’t forgotten anymore.”

A unique contribution from the student curators is the exhibit’s Community Care Space — a cozy, dimly-lit nook within Fisher’s West Gallery where observers can spend time reflecting, writing and taking a step back from the heavy themes discussed in Walker’s work.

As “Cut to the Quick” has traveled from coast to coast since its debut, Schnitzer hopes to draw attention to Kara Walker as a creative who painstakingly incorporates her lived experiences and generational suffering as a Black woman into her work. By using his robust collection to uplift creators who have been historically underrepresented in galleries and museums, Schnitzer aims to increase their representation so that the art world is made accessible and opened up to all who have historically felt unseen.

“For decades and decades, artists of color weren’t given the appreciation, the exhibitions or the respect they deserved. [They] weren’t given the audience,” Schnitzer said. “Most people out there think that art is for some elitist few, but that is so wrong. Art is for everyone.”

“Kara Walker: Cut to the Quick” is on view at the USC Fisher Museum of Art through Dec. 9.

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