Kara Walker Tapped by SFMOMA for a Large-Scale Installation

The artist, filmmaker and professor has focused on creating grand public sculptures in recent years.

Kara Walker, black middle-aged woman with pink buzz cut, in long-sleeve black shirt.
Kara Walker’s first solo West Coast museum exhibition was with SFMOMA. Ari Marcopoulos

Renowned contemporary artist Kara Walker, known for her haunting examinations of historical narratives, will create a new large-scale installation exploring grief for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the museum announced yesterday (May 23).

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The New York-based artist “has long been recognized for her incisive examinations of the dynamics of power and the exploitation of race and sexuality,” said SFMOMA in a statement. In her signature silhouette tableau murals and monumental sculptures exploring legacies of slavery, sexism and violence, she often incorporates the setting where her work is showcased into its overall message.

Walker is currently in the process of creating her upcoming installation for SFMOMA, which will be organized by Eungie Joo, the museum’s curator of contemporary art and a long-time collaborator of Walker’s. The new work will be open to the public by June 2024, marking the first site-specific installation for the SFMOMA’s Roberts Family Gallery.

She will also become the first woman featured in the gallery since it was established in 2016 as part of the museum’s expansion. Walker is no stranger to SFMOMA, however, which exhibited her watercolors, drawings and paper silhouettes in Kara Walker: Upon My Many Masters—An Outline, the artist’s first solo museum exhibition on the West Coast. SFMOMA has also included Walker in a number of group exhibitions, and in 2018, awarded her its Contemporary Vision Award.

Details about the new site-specific installation are sparse, but the museum calls Walker’s work “the culmination of years of the artist’s research into 19th century visual culture, technologies and methods of display”an intriguing description, given that her previous works have incorporated details like shadow puppetry, cycloramas and steam-powered organs.

“Informed by the fear and loss experienced as a global society during the COVID-19 pandemic, Walker’s new commission helps us consider the memorialization of trauma and the objectives of technology,” said Joo in a statement. Viewers, she suggests, will be prompted to move in the direction of “wonder and healing.”

The Roberts Family Gallery has previously housed installations like Richard Serra’s Sequence sculpture and Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity fresco. Walker’s commission for the gallery, which doesn’t charge admission, represents a step forward towards SFMOMA’s goal of increasing arts experiences in free spaces, according to Christopher Bedford, the museum’s director.

The artist has pivoted from silhouettes to grand sculptures in recent years

Walker first ventured into large-scale public art in 2014, when her 75-foot sculpture A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (subtitled an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant), went on view at the former Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The project reflected Walker’s nuanced and wide-ranging approach to history as art, taking elements from the sugar industry’s legacy of slave production, its inaccessibility during the Middle Ages and the practice of incorporating sugar sculptures into medieval feasts.

Viewers look up at white sphinx sculpture.
Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, displayed at the Domino Sugar Refinery in May 2014. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

In 2019, another Walker sculpture was commissioned for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. The result was Fons Americanus, a 43-foot tall fountain inspired by Buckingham Palace’s Victoria Memorial, with the four tiers of the sculpture questioning traditional public monuments and the interconnected histories of Africa, America and Europe.


Kara Walker Tapped by SFMOMA for a Large-Scale Installation