After a lengthy delay, due to disagreements between the show’s organizers and the artist that have reportedly since been patched, Kara Walker finally debuted her eagerly anticipated commission for Prospect.4 on Friday, and the piece ran for three days, marking the triennial’s closing weekend. In keeping with Walker’s track record, her contribution was smart, unsubtle, provocative, and powerful.
New Orleans residents and tourists alike know the Natchez, a steam-powered boat that tours the Mississippi River. Even those who don’t ride it are familiar with the sounds of its 32-note calliope, a steam-powered musical instrument which is played several times daily while the ship is docked, featuring songs that celebrate Dixie. The calliope is a musical instrument that dates to the 19th century and peaked in popularity in the years after the end of the Civil War. Like so many tourist attractions, the Natchez is a contemporary facsimile; built in the 1970s, it is intended to transport visitors back in time to a lost era—or, at least, a modern imagining of it.
Walker’s piece is a response and rebuke of the Natchez and its musical nostalgia for the good ol’ days. Titled Katastwóf Karavan, it is a steam-powered calliope placed on the bank of the Mississippi that weighs in at a whopping 8,000 pounds and ups its rival by 6 notes, for a grand total of 38. The instrument is encased within a wheeled cart festooned with Walker’s signature silhouetted figures, cut in steel, who march, dance, and writhe in procession within an ominous landscape of moss-covered trees, plantation crops, and grasses. The negative spaces between the figures are open, allowing the musical pipes within to be visible and the steam they produce when played to escape.
Walker’s calliope is programmed to play songs of African-American resistance, ranging from traditional to contemporary, including “We Shall Overcome” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Freedom,” and a few selections that felt especially appropriate given the site, like “Down by the Riverside” and Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross.” In two performances, the musician and artist Jason Moran also activated it using a small keyboard, playing covers and originals. Walker’s instrument was in conversation—or perhaps dueling—with the Natchez: it played immediately following those of its counterpart, and it was placed directly across the river from where the Natchez docks.
The work’s placement held historical weight as well. Algiers Point was a holding area for slaves before they were ferried across the river to the slave markets. In a program distributed to visitors, Walker notes the inadequacy of the small plaque placed by the city to mark the site’s deeply troubling history. The calliope’s title is derived from katastwóf, the Haitian Creole word for “catastrophe,” which Walker links to the violence, dehumanization, and legacies of slavery.
Hearing the calliope being played is not an entirely pleasant experience. It is loud and often shrill and unmelodic. (Many visitors wore ear plugs provided by Prospect.) At times the noises that emanated from it—punctuated by seemingly angry puffs of steam—sounded like cries of distress. Some of the silhouetted figures commit unspeakable acts upon each other, including one who crouches on a vine hanging from the treetops and rips the heart out of the chest of another. At times, these combinations of sounds and images evoked the basest horror and fear.
Walker has created a work elegantly simple in concept and incredibly complex in execution, a piece that calls people to gather to listen and contemplate. It is pitch-perfect for our times, in which truth-telling and resistance are spreading like wildfire, and the romanticization of lost eras and causes is being challenged as willingly complicit.
The question now is: What will be the fate of Walker’s Katastwóf Karavan after its incredibly brief three-day run? Wouldn’t it be wonderful for this piece to remain in New Orleans? As Walker herself writes in her program, “New Orleans is this rare city on the Mainland which has retained and even celebrates its Africanisms.” I have daydreams of a generous donor buying and donating it to the New Orleans Museum of Art, and having it brought out of the museum once a year to be played for the public. Perhaps it could be towed on a float in a Mardi Gras parade like that of the Zulu Krewe, or shuttled to parts of the city where it would have particular resonance. Kara Walker and her collaborators, Prospect’s staff, and the show’s artistic director, Trevor Schoonmaker, should all be commended for bringing this work into being. Let’s hope it finds a home in the city that inspired it.