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Curating Kara Walker: An Interview with Dr. Katie Geha

“It’s too much, and I write this knowing full well that my right, my capacity to live in this Godforsaken country as a (proudly) raced and (urgently) gendered person is under threat by random groups of white (male) supremacist goons who flaunt a kind of patched together notion of race purity with flags and torches and impressive displays of perpetrator-as-victim sociopathy. I roll my eyes, fold my arms and wait. How many ways can a person say racism is the real bread and butter of our American mythology, and in how many ways will the racists among our countrymen act out their Turner Diaries race war fantasy combination Nazi Germany and Antebellum South – states which, incidentally, lost the wars they started, and always will, precisely because there is no way those white racisms can survive the earth without the rest of us types upholding humanity’s best, keeping the motor running on civilization, being good, and preserving nature and all the stuff worth working and living for?” - Kara Walker, 2017

Kara Walker’s work grabs the viewer's attention with its brutal imagery and candid style, evocative of more questions than answers. The works currently on display at the de la Cruz and Spanguolo Galleries are more stylistically fluid than her celebrated cut-paper silhouettes, but they explore similar themes of race, gender, and legacy while still taking inspiration from the Antebellum South. I got the chance to speak with Dr. Katie Geha, the curator of this exhibition, about the curation process and how to engage with these works at a university with a legacy of slavery.

Ceci: Could you discuss the initial stages of curating “Kara Walker: Back of Hand” and share what inspired you to put it together?

Dr. Geha: I had opened up a new gallery space in downtown Athens. It's affiliated with the [University of Georgia] and the art school, and we had worked really hard for almost two or three years to do the build out, to do the branding, to figure out the programming. And COVID happened. There were many starts. There were lots of false starts, lots of failure, and I wasn't ever really sure if it was really going to happen. Then it did really happen, but I'd only had a year of exhibitions planned out, and usually a curator has three to four years planned…I was like, “Oh my goodness, what am I going to do?” I was exhausted. I remember thinking, “Why am I doing this? I don't even like art anymore. I need to give up and try something different.” But then I gave myself this moment of grace to kind of dream big, and I thought to myself, “If I could show any artist in the world, who would I show?” And the first person that came to my mind was Kara Walker.

I'd seen a really incredible show of hers in 2017 at her gallery in New York. And this was right after the Unite the Right rally, which was a white supremacist rally in [Charlottesville], Virginia…And this rally came out right after Trump got elected. There were all these images in the media of these white men holding torches; it was very anachronistic in terms of these images that maybe we thought were in our past but were actually very much in our present. And that was something that I really loved about Kara Walker's work—the ways in which she collapsed the present and history, and how it made us confront difficult truths about America and our present moment. So that was kind of the beginning seed of why I did this exhibition. Also, Kara Walker was born in Stockton, California, but she grew up in Atlanta, and she's never had a solo show in Georgia. I also thought that it was really important that we bring her work to Athens, Georgia. So I went to the gallery, they told me to put together a proposal, and then she agreed to do the show.

Image Credits: Sikkema Jacobs

Could you elaborate on your interpretation of the title “Back of Hand”? In what ways is the concept “that which hurts you is often the instrument you know most intimately” reflected in the exhibition’s pieces?

Well, originally, that title was something that she suggested. And again, I was really thinking about the context of the show within Georgia and what it means. It's one thing to see these works depicting the Antebellum South in New York, right? What would it mean for me to bring this to Georgia, for students to see this, for people who are living on the soil where these perpetrators roamed? What is that like? What does the proximity of this history to this land have in connection to these works of art? I also was thinking again about how this was her first solo show in Georgia. And why was that? Why wasn't someone in Georgia willing to do an exhibition or maybe in reverse? Why didn't Kara Walker want to do an exhibition in Georgia? So I was thinking about this idea of familiarity and proximity, and then how that familiarity and that proximity can both be something that you can take advantage of. You might not notice, say, a Confederate statue that's in the town square that you go by every day and it's meaningless to you. Right? Until you start to pay attention. And so this idea of the back of hand that it's exposed—something familiar, but also something that cuts deep and can hurt once you do start to pay attention.

Were there any adjustments or considerations you made when transitioning this exhibition from Athens to Georgetown? How does the local community factor into your approach in presenting the show?

Yeah, that was something that Emma [McMorran] and I discussed a lot because this really was a show that I formed for Georgia, although, I don't think that its themes are not connected to Georgetown, to the history of Georgetown, to Washington, DC. I mean, you know, certainly these issues loom large within our government and within the context of DC…That this is a thing that also happened in DC and in the surrounding areas…The Exorcist is all about abject horror and this wildness of abjection. I think there could be a conversation, or maybe a scholarly article, written about the connections of Kara Walker and The Exorcist. And so the connection between the steps and the work, I really liked that. That was an unexpected affinity that I was pretty excited about.

I found it really interesting that you had your students try to transcribe the text on “Feast of Famine.” What's your intention for how students should engage with these artworks, and what insights or experiences are you hoping they will gain?

I think one of the things I would really encourage students to do is to take time; sit in front of the work, see what it reveals to you as you're sitting in front of it, or come back to the show more than once. [Engage with these works knowing that they] are very deep and very complex; the messages are multivalent and aren't necessarily something that can be captured in just one moment. So, my recommendation is to spend time, to ruminate, to look, and to look again.

Do you think you could provide some insight into how Kara Walker's artist's statement informed and influenced the curation of this exhibition?

I don't know exactly, other than that artist's statement made me sit up right when I read it and go, “Wait a minute, why have I not been paying that much attention to Kara Walker?” [The statement has] a tone of such strong intellect, but also of exasperation, and the understanding that it is not the exceptional black female artist who has to be the bellwether or the person who has to explain the atrocities in America in this moment. It should not just land on her shoulders; it is part of our entire collective responsibility to point out these ills of America. And reading that made me realize that in a very crystallized way, which maybe I knew before, but it wasn't as clear to me. So this attitude of the artist's statement pushed me more to feel that a show of Kara Walker's work in Georgia at this time was urgent and necessary.

Do you have any advice for students who are interested in pursuing work in curation or art?

You can make your own art scene. It's as easy as putting works up on a wall in your apartment, starting an Instagram page, and telling your friends to come. So my main advice is to just do it, and to do whatever you can in whatever way you can. And don't worry about gatekeepers, and don't worry about being allowed or not allowed to do something great.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“Kara Walker: Back of Hand” and “Kara Walker: Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies” are currently on display at the de la Cruz Art Gallery and the Spagnuolo Art Gallery until December 3rd. The galleries are open from Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.


Ceci Mestre is a sophomore in the College studying American Studies.


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