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SFMOMA Commissions New Installation by Kara Walker

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) announced that it has commissioned artist Kara Walker to create the first site-specific installation for its admission-free, street-level Roberts Family Gallery. Walker has long been recognized for her incisive examinations of the dynamics of power and the exploitation of race and sexuality. Leveraging expressions of fantasy, Walker confronts the troubling histories that have shaped the American psyche, repossessing control with a keen but disconcerting humor. With an imagination fueled by rage, sorrow and compassion, Walker has extended her practice beyond her signature cut-paper silhouettes and drawings to include monumental installations that challenge the narratives that are commemorated and memorialized institutionally by the state, museum and church. For her SFMOMA commission, Walker will create a large-scale installation that responds to the glass-enclosed Roberts Family Gallery and plays with strategies of engagement and preservation inspired by historical museum displays. The exhibition is organized by Eungie Joo, SFMOMA’s curator of contemporary art, with whom Walker has collaborated multiple times over the past 25 years. Currently in formation, the commission will open to the public in July 2024.

“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. Facing Howard Street and the world, her striking installation will allow us to move towards wonder and healing,” said Joo.

With floor-to-ceiling windows wrapping two sides and wide Roman steps on a third, the Roberts Family Gallery serves as an essential beacon for the museum, establishing vibrant connections with the neighborhood and encouraging passersby on Howard Street to engage with the art on view. The space has been home to a wide range of significant installations, including Richard Serra’s steel sculpture, Sequence; JR’s digital mural, The Chronicles of San Francisco; and Diego Rivera’s monumental fresco, Pan American Unity. Walker’s commission marks the first time that an artist will create a site-specific installation for the space, responding to the gallery’s relationship to the city and creating a porousness between happenings inside and outside the museum. The commission is part of SFMOMA’s vision to present work that relates to its communities as well as broader national and international dialogues. Walker is the first woman artist whose work will be featured in the Roberts Family Gallery since the space was established as part of SFMOMA’s 2016 expansion.

“Kara Walker’s work engages with subjects of deep global resonance and encourages long looking and connection in its intricate details. We are thrilled to be working with her on a major commission for one of the museum’s most prominent public spaces,” said Christopher Bedford, SFMOMA’s Helen and Charles Schwab Director. “The commission is part of our vision to present work that is at once formally innovative and inextricably connected to topics of meaning in our daily lives. At the same time, we are working to increase the spectrum of arts experiences available in our free spaces, to ensure that SFMOMA is welcoming and accessible to as many people as possible. We look forward to sharing this compelling new work with our community.”

The new commission also builds on SFMOMA’s long-standing relationship with the artist. Her 1997 SFMOMA exhibition Kara Walker: Upon My Many Masters–An Outline featured remarkable watercolors and drawings as well as two black-paper silhouette installations—allegorical tableaus that suggest figures engaged in macabre, violent and sexual interactions. Part of the museum’s ongoing New Work series, it marked Walker’s first solo museum exhibition on the West Coast. Since then, SFMOMA has presented the artist’s work in group exhibitions and acquired her work for its collection. In 2018, the museum awarded Walker its Contemporary Vision Award, which celebrates creators, innovators and changemakers whose work foregrounds contemporary art as a vital part of public life. The forthcoming installation is the culmination of years of the artist’s research into 19th century visual culture, technologies and methods of display—research that has manifested as shadow puppetry, cycloramas and a steam-powered organ in the artist’s previous works.

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