Carnival of the Grotesque: Kara Walker’s Insistent Resistance in New Orleans

Walker’s installation was freighted with layers of site-specific symbolism — none of it subtle if you knew a bit about local history


The enemy was in sight. It was chugging back up the broad Mississippi, its majestic paddle wheel churning the waters, returning the day-trippers to the dock at the edge of the French Quarter. On the opposite bank, facing downtown New Orleans where the river’s curve forms the promontory called Algiers Point, Kara Walker was waiting.

Her antagonist was the steamboat Natchez, a tourist fixture of the Crescent City that purveys nostalgia for a gracious antebellum South — the belles, gamblers, and cotton traders traveling between market towns, steaming past forests and plantations. A replica of its nineteenth-century ancestors, the Natchez does harbor cruises, weddings, and special events. In 1988, when New Orleans hosted the Republican National Convention, nominee George H.W. Bush and family made their triumphant arrival aboard the vessel.

Now, under threatening skies on a mild Friday in late February, Walker, the celebrated artist who has made the violence and grotesque of America’s racial history her central theme, was about to deliver some counterprogramming, months in the making.

Clad in black T-shirts, she and her team busied themselves under a tent while an assemblage of collectors, curators, scholars, and other assorted art types milled around on the moist riverbank grass. At the gathering’s center, artisans versed in steam machinery tinkered with equipment inside a black-and-white rectangular box of Walker’s design. It was about twenty feet long and stood some fifteen feet high, resting atop four wheels, a small front pair and large rear pair, each with sixteen blond-wood spokes, giving the whole contraption the form of an old-time parade wagon.

Cut in black steel along the wagon’s four panels were silhouette sculptures in the style that for twenty years Walker has made her instantly recognizable hallmark, marshaling the tropes and archetypes of the Southern history of enslavement in assorted mise-en-scènes. The smaller panels were elegiac: One presented a Black woman in profile in the woods, her right arm lifted in accompaniment to her skyward gaze; the other showed a cotton field, a cloud of white bolls floating upward like bubbles against the steel sky.

The longer side panels were harsher. One had what appeared to be an enslaved family getting marched across a field by a monstrous overseer figure made of three individuals stacked piggyback, the top one wielding a whip. The opposite panel showed two captive figures carrying an outstretched third — a dead body? — while a fourth crouched above in the branches, legs spread apart, as if about to shower bodily fluids onto the scene.

A central opening profiled these fantastical figures against the device in the wagon’s middle: a row of shiny pipes of increasing length, akin to an organ. It was indeed a musical instrument — a calliope, which uses pressured steam to emit loud whistles. A wire ran to a keyboard that stood nearby, protected from the drizzle by an attendant with an umbrella.

Walker titled the whole montage the Katastwóf Karavan, or Caravan of Catastrophe, the use of Haitian Creole signaling the mix of Caribbean and Southern histories that shaped New Orleans. Walker’s first public installation since the 2014 Marvelous Sugar Baby — the enormous Sphinx-like mammy figure that she built out of sugar in the now-demolished Domino factory in Williamsburg — the Karavan went up for the closing weekend of the Prospect.4 triennial, which ran for three months at multiple sites around New Orleans. The installation was freighted with layers of site-specific symbolism — none of it subtle if you knew a bit about local history, yet all of it obscured by years of avoidance or, at best, awkward notes in the narratives delivered by school curricula or tourist brochures.

Thus Algiers Point: Here, in the eighteenth century, traders warehoused disembarked captives — those who survived the Middle Passage — before selling them on the opposite bank in the markets that dotted the French Quarter and surroundings. This is where families were rent apart, humans assessed and packaged as commodities. Thus, too, Walker’s tableaux, relevant across the landscape of chattel slavery but especially here.

And thus the calliope, a direct retort to the one on the Natchez — “the OTHER calliope,” Walker called it on her handout for the event — and its sonic broadcast of a whitewashed history. Several times a day, the vessel’s instrument blares out to the city (there is no such thing as a quiet calliope) items from a hoary playlist such as “Old Man River,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “God Bless America,” and, yes, “Dixie’s Land.”

Invited to make something for Prospect.4, Walker had honed in on Algiers Point and, after hearing the Natchez a few times, the concept of a feisty riposte, a guerrilla action in the long asymmetric war against white supremacy. If the visual matter was distinctly hers, the sourcing of the Karavan described an America of workshops: steam specialists from Indiana; wheel-makers in South Dakota; metal fabricators in Kingston, New York; and a Michigan-based artisan, Kenneth Griffard, who custom-built the calliope.

And for the idea’s musical development, Walker turned to a fellow New York–based polymath with Southern roots (and fellow MacArthur “genius” anointee), the jazz pianist Jason Moran, whose multi-arts projects also bring forth hidden histories, from Thelonious Monk’s North Carolina roots to the life of mid-century jazz clubs in U.S. cities.

The original plan was for the Karavan to appear at the triennial’s opening in November, but it wasn’t done in time. Now it was ready to go, turning the closing weekend into a special event. Together, Walker and Moran had designed a playlist of Black liberation music for the calliope — from Negro spirituals to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” These would sound out, pre-programmed and controlled through a MIDI device, at scheduled times over the weekend. But on this Friday afternoon, Moran would play live, improvising to the weather, the gathering, and the return of his notes in the heavy air.

The audience of two or three hundred drew near as the calliope began to hiss, warming up as the water in its belly heated into steam. Walker stood back, keeping attention off herself. Moran — new to the calliope prior to this project — sat at the keyboard, wearing thick headphones, the umbrella sheltering him like a potentate from the intermittent rain.

Picking with his right hand, he played shrill one-note blasts; his left elbow traveled the low range, producing a mournful groan. Then he found a central rhythm — dum-da-DA-dum, dum-da-DA-dum — and worked around it awhile, gradually introducing melodies. Through the diamond-shaped opening in the side panel, above the steel silhouette being carried (to burial? to shelter?), the steam escaped in puffs. The sound was industrial, the notes abrupt and without the softness of decay. Moran jolted the melody with freestyle blares and moans, bringing to mind the shrieks and calls of the avant-garde saxophonists Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, or Marion Brown, abstract yet uncannily soulful.

And then it was over. The rain had strengthened; water dripped from the audience’s rain gear and drenched the clothes of those (like this correspondent) who were unprepared. From responses to the rehearsals, Walker and Moran knew that the sound had traveled across into the neighborhoods all along the river’s curve. The sun came out; as if on cue, a rainbow appeared. Vessels proceeded along the river: a behemoth Maersk cargo laden with containers; a long tanker escorted by a tiny tug. In a little while the calliope on the Natchez, berthed across the river, would do its usual reactionary thing. Most of the audience wandered back to the ferry terminal; some invitees headed to a cocktail party. Walker and Moran disappeared; there would be a second live performance the next morning.

What did it mean? For a moment, the team had voiced the ancestors, reclaimed the land. The katastwóf of chattel slavery and the American plantation economy, so inconvenient to our societal narratives that it does not have an agreed designation like the Holocaust or the Nakba (the Palestinian dispossession of 1948), was noted in sound and space at a site of extreme importance. The sanitized story delivered by the Natchez, by the tawdry French Quarter bars, by the distinguished plantation tours and blue-blood historical societies, had been rebuffed. Resistance had been insisted into this space.

It felt like a beginning. What happens next to the Karavan is not yet known, but there is work to do: land to purify, spirits to assuage. It may reappear in museums or festivals, but one got to imagining the Karavan moving along St. Charles, Louisiana, keeping pace with the streetcar; appearing dockside in Memphis, Charleston, or that capital of slavery finance, New York City; ambling through the Delta on Route 61, the “blues highway”; hooting outside bank headquarters, state capitols. It has wheels; it’s meant to move. It has pipes; it’s meant to shout. Bring it.