If you happen to wander into the National Gallery’s sculpture garden in Washington, D.C., right now you’ll come face to face with a 19th century-style wagon. On its covered sides, stark black silhouettes enact unsettling scenes of slavery. It’s a striking object in any context, but especially when it appears just a stone’s throw from the National Monument, the White House, and the Lincoln Memorial.
The wooden vessel is actually a steam calliope, a musical instrument that pushes compressed air or steam through large whistles to produce loud music. Titled Katastwóf Karavan (2018), the calliope is a work by artist Kara Walker, who collaborated with musician Jason Moran on its initial presentation at the Prospect.4 triennial in New Orleans in 2018.
In its original site, stationed along the Mississippi River at Algiers Point, the work stood adjacent to former slave trading posts, where people were legally bought and sold like cattle.
In an exclusive interview with Walker and Moran filmed as part of Art21’s series, the two artists reflected on how legacies of slavery are imbued in sites across America, and how the calliope serves as a modern-day monument.
“I wanted to really create this paradoxical space where the ingenuity of American manufacturing—the same genius that brought us chattel slavery—could then become the mechanics through which those voices that were suppressed reemerge for all time,” Walker said, noting that the work “honors millions of ancestors.”
The calliope historically was movable, and Walker concieved of her contemporary iteration in the same manner, planning for it to travel around America, serving as a sort of mobile memorial, unlike the hulking stones and bronzes that typically serve as such markers.
“When you have monuments or commemorative things that just exist, they sit there and they disappear,” she said. The calliope, on the other hand, “always needs to be activated,” ensuring that the voices will continue to be honored.
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