Sometime in 2011, while the opera Porgy and Bess was in rehearsals for a Broadway revival, Kara Walker gave herself an assignment. Her friend Alicia Hall Moran had been cast as Bess, and Walker decided that attending run-throughs and making some quick sketches might be a good way to soak up the mood, “to understand the music, and to allow myself to get caught up in the fantasy of theater.”
When the show’s producers asked her not to use her drawings for any salable work, she agreed—but then Arion Press came knocking. There were plans to create a limited-edition Porgy & Bess libretto, and the publisher hoped Walker would produce a suite of illustrations to accompany the lyrics, which were written by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin in 1935.
“I wasn’t sure how to approach it, because I was tied to not working with my original sketches,” the artist recalls. “I tried a lot of different things—some drawings I found too cartoony, some were kind of scratched into a photosensitive film. I found the process irksome, a bit like scraping fingernails on a blackboard.”
Despite her misgivings, Walker pulled through—and the publication features her very first set of lithographs. Floating like a small picture window on the white expanse of every page, each of the 16 illustrations has a messy, aggravated border—the result of Walker’s rubbing technique—and all the figures are represented in her signature silhouette style. “Because they are fraught, I chose to simply let them be paper cut-out caricatures whose full-dimensions are alluded to by rubbing,” she writes in her artist’s statement for the book.
Walker was born in Stockton, California, in 1969, and moved to Georgia with her family when she was 13. Her mother, who had ancestors from South Carolina, often played a 1952 recording of Porgy and Bess while “nodding conspiratorially at the record,” Walker notes. “It seemed to me at the time that there was something important about this music and Mom had a particularly private conversation happening with it.”
Set in the 1920s in Charleston, South Carolina, to music by Ira’s brother, George Gershwin, Porgy and Bess follows two black protagonists—one the beautiful mistress of a tyrant, the other a crippled beggar—through a tumultuous love affair. Engaging issues of race, poverty, drugs, and violence, the opera garnered criticism, especially in the 1950s, for offering a stereotypical characterization of the lifestyle and speech of African Americans.
“I think Porgy and Bess lives in a murky place in popular culture and personal reflection,” Walker says. “Music softens the lines, obscures the racism in the text until it looks very much like what it is—a folk tale of its age.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 24 under the title “Kara Walker Gets Operatic.”