Two years ago, the Harvard Art Museums purchased “U.S.A. Idioms,” a massive collage and drawing by the contemporary artist Kara Walker, who first rocked the art world in 1994 with her cut-paper silhouettes that evoked slavery’s horrors and lasting impact in contemporary America.
Walker’s work made its long-anticipated Harvard debut last week.
“U.S.A. Idioms,” created in the summer of 2017 in the wake of the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., involving white nationalists and supremacists and counterprotesters, takes aim at the same subjects through a series of vignettes depicting African-American figures and oppressors. In the work, bodies are woven through the branches of a dead tree; others perch atop a stump. A torn Confederate flag waves from one branch. What appears to be a white flag hangs from another.
Walker’s work speaks to the present moment “in a way that is so vital, so critical, so engaging,” said Mary Schneider Enriquez, Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, who helped acquire the new work and arrange the gallery where the drawing is on view through early October.
Similar to the images Walker crafted for her earlier silhouettes, the figures in “U.S.A. Idioms” are familiar stereotypes that come from our past and that we all have seen and taken for granted,” Enriquez said. “We all recognize in some way each of the figures in the piece, but the longer you look at it the more both familiar and then completely disturbing and strange the drawing becomes.”