Kara Walker has described her family’s move from Stockton, California, to Atlanta in 1983 as a “seminal moment in the lives of African Americans where one becomes black.” Then, and now, Atlanta has many sides to it. Before the move, the family lived in a progressive, multicultural community in Stockton, California. On arriving at their new home in Stone Mountain, they found the spiritual birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan was still active with rallies. Not far away was Black Power Atlanta. But out in the suburbs the Walkers lived in the literal shadows of the largest granite monolith in the world, permanent reminders of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis, symbols of white supremacy. The vestigial remains of the Lost Cause are never too far away.
In the absence of the collective myth of all of Atlanta’s virtues and equities, it’s here that Kara Walker makes her work. It’s no mistake that her art has rarely been exhibited here in Georgia (this being her first solo show), with most museums choosing not to be entertained at their own expense. This is what makes the exhibition, Back of Hand, at the Athenaeum in Athens all the more special. The exhibition focuses on works on paper, primarily watercolors or washy Sumi ink pieces that are sometimes ripped apart and collaged. Extraordinarily expressive, the paintings are more ominous evocations of the illustrations I find in my children’s books of fairy tales. Enough so that they almost feel familiar. The paintings are repeatedly hovering between wrath and faith, between dreams and nightmares, between reclaiming a childhood lost and the aggression of adults. A darkness hangs over everything. These are conversations typically held deep in the shadows.