Robert Shelley/National Gallery of Art
An unusual work of art in the National Mall’s Sculpture Garden also makes unusual sounds: archaic and strange.
It’s an old-fashioned steam-powered calliope, an instrument once commonly seen at carnivals and on riverboats decades ago. But this calliope was designed in 2018 by top American artist, Kara Walker, and plays music composed by Jazz luminary Jason Moran.
The Katastwóf Karavan looks like a circus wagon. It is decorated with some of the images for which Walker is famous: the silhouettes. But Walker’s work is a far cry from the sentimental black-and-white portraits that once hung in oval frames in wealthy homes. It shows slavery in its most brutal form in the pre-war South. Its silhouettes seem carved in the shadow of history.
“It’s the liminal space — that’s what always draws me in,” Walker told NPR. “The ambivalent, the liquid, the fluid.”
Walker is also drawn to a particular era in American history. She conceived this project by visiting the New Orleans neighborhood where kidnapped Africans were held before being sold into the plantation nightmare. As she gazed at the scarcity of monuments to people who experienced unspeakable horror, she heard the music of a steamboat floating down the Mississippi River. The happy sound, she realized, hadn’t changed since before the Civil War. He was surely heard by slaves waiting for the auction block at Point of Algiers.
“How this event translates into wanting to build a calliope is something of a guess. But it meant I walked down an internet rabbit hole of steam enthusiasts,” Walker told an audience at the National Gallery. of Art, where the piece is part of an exhibition titled Afro-Atlantic Stories.
To do the Katastwof Karavan, Walker collaborated with a Michigan craftsman who built this 38-note aluminum and oak calliope. But instead of producing American standards, she wanted the instrument to scream and cry. Protest and dream. Sometimes it sounds like spiritual songs. Sometimes it sounds like an alarm.
Isabella Bulkeley/National Gallery of Art
“Musicians often talk about how sound carries,” observes musician and composer Jason Moran. (Like Walker, he’s a MacArthur “Genius” award winner.) Like the story, he says, the sound continues in waves that continue even when you stop hearing it. “Not just the way it goes through you, but who reaches people behind you. It reaches people a few blocks away. But most of us, we don’t think it’s ending on this planet either. ”
The name of Katastwof Karavan is taken from the Haitian Creole for “catastrophe”. In a pamphlet accompanying the article, Walker notes that Americans have never given a name — like “holocaust” or “catastrophe” — to an event that defined generations. “We just say ‘slavery’ as if it were legitimate work instead of what it was, a disaster for millions of people,” she wrote. (The “Kara” in “Karavan,” she also notes, is a deliberate play on her own name.)
Art lover Alysia Thaxton was thrilled to see the Katastwof Karavan in the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Art. She is a longtime Kara Walker fan. But the silhouettes that adorn the wagon — images of slaves chained by the neck or caught in swamps — aren’t always easy on the eyes, she said. Jason Moran’s music facilitated the experience.
“It was kind of a release,” she said. “Not holding it all back, so it could keep flowing and not get bottled up. There was no blockage.”
The steam calliope works by release, as it goes. Each touch releases the pressure built up inside the calliope’s metal pipes. But Kara Walker cautions those who are tempted to use her instrument as a metaphor for today’s pressures and frustrations.
“To be free from something, you have to know what is holding you back,” she observes. “You have to know what really binds you.
But perhaps this musical landmark has something to offer at a time when Americans grapple with new technologies, the labor and debt crises, ethical consumerism and a staggering wealth gap, she says. Here is a machine from the past that has learned new music. It is singing for us in solidarity.