In this tapestry, Kara Walker reproduces an etching from an 1863 issue of the newspaper Harper’s Weekly that documents the burning of a “colored orphan asylum.” Infuriated by newly imposed draft requirements during the Civil War, a mob of New Yorkers took to the streets, attacking both black and white innocents. To drive home the emotional reality of this atrocity, Walker superimposed the silhouette of a hanged black woman over this scene, a shocking image that grabs our attention.
Walker’s silhouette of the hanged woman is an example of her ongoing interest in the traditional medium of cut-paper silhouettes. Before the widespread popularity of photography in early nineteenth-century America, paper cutouts of profiles served as a popular medium for portraiture. For the artist, this collision of popular prints and cutouts with the more elite tradition of woven tapestries creates tension: “I liked the irony of transferring this lowly craft into a medium once used for kings and princes,” Walker said.