‘It’s a Summoning’: Watch Kara Walker and Jason Moran Discuss How Their Musical Collaboration Gives Vent to a History of Struggle and Celebration

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21
Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Kara Walker & Jason Moran: Sending Out A Signal." © Art21, Inc. 2018.

Earlier this month, Kara Walker debuted her commission for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, a masterful re-imagining of the opulent fountains outside of Buckingham Palace that explores the colonial relationship between Europe, Africa, and America. The work, titled Fons Americanus, uses water to evoke associations with the slippage of time and memory, and also the literal method of transporting enslaved African peoples.

This spectacular work develops themes that the artist has been working on for years. Back in 2018, Walker created a calliope (a steam-powered organ-style instrument) for the Prospect.4 Triennial in New Orleans, installing it inside of a large parade wagon as a way to evoke both the history of Louisiana’s riverboats and the rise of Industrial Revolution-era machines like the cotton gin. It is programmed to play songs representing “Black protest and celebration.”

The wagon is decorated with Walker’s signature silhouette cut-outs, in this case specifically conceived as a response to encountering Algiers Point, a former holding site for slaves in Mississippi. When Walker visited it for the first time, she was appalled at the lackluster memorial denoting the place’s history. She dubbed her own work Katastwóf Karavan, from the Haitian word that translates to “catastrophe.”

Before presenting the work at Prospect, Walker sat down with artist-musician Jason Moran, who she brought in to play her calliope, for Art21’s “Extended Play” series.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Kara Walker & Jason Moran: Sending Out A Signal." © Art21, Inc. 2018.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Kara Walker & Jason Moran: Sending Out A Signal.” © Art21, Inc. 2018.

“I wanted to really create this paradoxical space where the ingenuity of American manufacturing—the same genius that brought us chattel slavery—could then become the mechanics through which those voices that were suppressed reemerge for all time,” Walker explains.

It was important for her that the wagon not be a stationary object. “It always needs to be activated,” she tells Art21, nodding to Moran, who is a jazz musician and composer.

Moran, who had only played such an instrument once in his life, described the whistling sound of the instrument as a “summoning, sending out of a signal… whether it’s a distress signal, or like ‘let’s celebrate together.'”

Jason Moran’s first museum show is currently on view now at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. For one day only on October 12, he will be reunited with Walker’s calliope.


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, below. Kara Walker’s “Katastwóf Karavan” with Jason Moran is at the Whitney Museum, Saturday October 12, 1-6:30 p.m.; Kara Walker: Fons Americanus” is on view in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall through April 5, 2020. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television series is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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