The Katastwóf Karavan is a sculptural work of art with a steam calliope, a musical instrument used on steamboats and in carnivals in the 19th century. Kara Walker housed this calliope in a steel-wrapped wagon featuring her signature silhouettes, a style popular in portraiture of the same era, commonly used to depict an endearing subject. Walker upends this tradition by using silhouettes to represent the violence of slavery.
The artist made The Katastwóf Karavan for the Prospect.4 Triennial in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was presented there as a temporary memorial to the institution of slavery at Algiers Point, a site along the Mississippi River that had served as a holding area for enslaved humans before their sale into bondage.
In this new setting in Washington, DC, The Katastwóf Karavan also has nearby references to slavery in the United States. As in New Orleans, the sculpture stands adjacent to sites where enslaved humans were legally incarcerated and sold in the 19th century. Walker’s silhouettes across the wagon conjure the shadows of the struggle for emancipation. The unsettling forms depict dehumanizing instruments of containment, such as an iron collar with bells forcibly worn by enslaved persons to alert enslavers of potential escape.
Presenting such imagery on the National Mall, with all three branches of government just blocks away, The Katastwóf Karavan recalls the sanctioning of enforced human servitude. The setting, defined by its backdrop of iconic monuments, also provides both context and contrast for The Katastwóf Karavan as a new sort of commemorative work, a site to recall (as its title describes) a catastrophe. Accompanied by Walker’s powerful imagery, the reverberating sound from the musical organ of The Katastwóf Karavan creates pulses in the human body (in its biological organs), loudly memorializing a once-silent, violent history and its legacy.
This work is presented in conjunction with the exhibition Afro-Atlantic Histories, which is on view in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building through July 17, 2022.
Musician and artist Jason Moran will play the calliope live during special performances and join Walker for a conversation as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Lecture Series. The Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition also features Walker's 2009 print Restraint.
Jason Moran will perform the calliope live on May 14 from 3:30–4:00 p.m. and May 15 from 2:00–2:30 p.m. Additionally, a playlist will play daily May 12–18 from 11:00 a.m.–noon and 2:00–3:00 p.m. except for on May 14, when it will play a second time from 4:00–5:00 p.m., and on May 15, when it will play only from 1:30–2:00 p.m.
Please note: The playlist will not play on May 16 at 2:00 p.m. owing to inclement weather.