‘It Honors Millions of Ancestors’: Watch Artist Kara Walker Build a Mobile Musical Monument to Enslaved People

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

Kara Walker in her exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel. Photo: Ari Marcopoulos

If you happen to wander into the National Gallery’s sculpture garden in Washington, D.C., right now you’ll come face to face with a 19th century-style wagon. On its covered sides, stark black silhouettes enact unsettling scenes of slavery. It’s a striking object in any context, but especially when it appears just a stone’s throw from the National Monument, the White House, and the Lincoln Memorial.

The wooden vessel is actually a steam calliope, a musical instrument that pushes compressed air or steam through large whistles to produce loud music. Titled The Katastwóf Karavan (2018), the calliope is a work by artist Kara Walker, who collaborated with musician Jason Moran on its initial presentation at the Prospect.4 triennial in New Orleans in 2018.

In its original site, stationed along the Mississippi River at Algiers Point, the work stood adjacent to former slave trading posts, where people were legally bought and sold like cattle.

Kara Walker's <i>The Katastwóf Karavan</i> in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Kara Walker’s The Katastwóf Karavan in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

In an exclusive interview with Walker and Moran filmed as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, the two artists reflected on how legacies of slavery are imbued in sites across America, and how the calliope serves as a modern-day monument.

“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 said, noting that the work “honors millions of ancestors.” 

The calliope historically was movable, and Walker concieved of her contemporary iteration in the same manner, planning for it to travel around America, serving as a sort of mobile memorial, unlike the hulking stones and bronzes that typically serve as such markers.

“When you have monuments or commemorative things that just exist, they sit there and they disappear,” she said. The calliope, on the other hand, “always needs to be activated,” ensuring that the voices will continue to be honored.

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, below. “Kara Walker’s The Katastwóf Karavan” is on view at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden through May 19, 2022.

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

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