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Kara Walker is bringing a steam-powered calliope to the Whitney Museum

Howard Halle

On Saturday Oct 11, the Whitney Museum will host a performance by an old-fashioned steam-powered calliope. Well, maybe not so old-fashioned: The calliope is actually a piece by the artist Kara Walker, whose often controversial work tackles the perennially hot topics of slavery and racism.

Walker is known for her signature murals, created by cutting representations of the antebellum South out of sheets of black paper in the style of 18th-century portrait silhouettes. Borrowing from the language of racist caricature, the artist depicts plantation life as a Grand Guignol of violence, sexual assault and abject behavior, revealing the ugly truth of American history as a kind of deranged spectacle. Her calliope, or rather the wagon it travels in, is covered in similar scenes.

Titled Katastwóf Karavan (katastwóf is Haitian creole for catastrophe), the piece was originally created in 2018 as site-specific commission for the Prospect.4 Triennial in New Orleans. Recalling the sound of the paddle steamers that once plied the Mississippi, Katastwóf Karavan grew out of Walker’s reaction to a plaque marking a former holding pen for slaves along the river—a memorial she deemed to be wholly inadequate for a site where so many enslaved people were killed or abused while waiting to be shipped to their final destinations. In response, Walker programmed Katastwóf Karavan to play a compilation of jazz, gospel and other songs that speak to the Black experience.

At the Whitney, she will be collaborating with musician/artist Jason Moran, who is currently having a show at the museum; he will be performing on the calliope at 6pm. Before then, the piece will begin tooting at 1pm on the plaza just under the High Line in front of the Whitney’s Meatpacking District home.


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