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Kara Walker’s Katastwóf Karavan with Jason Moran

Nov 27, 2019

On October 12, 2019, Jason Moran joined artist Kara Walker for the New York debut of Katastwóf Karavan (2018), a steam-powered calliope housed in a parade wagon. Featuring the steam whistle typical of a calliope, the custom-fabricated instrument was programmed by Walker with a compilation of jazz, gospel, and songs that, in Walker’s words, represent both “Black protest and celebration.” 

Walker created Katastwóf Karavan for the Prospect.4 Triennial in New Orleans as a site-specific commission. Drawing on the calliope’s associations with nineteenth-century New Orleans riverboats as well as the steam engine and other Industrial Revolution-era inventions like the cotton gin, the work’s layered references reveal connections between the history of the city’s cultural landscape and slavery in the American South. She conceived the caravan, with her signature silhouette imagery, in response to the inadequacy of a memorial plaque at Algiers Point, identifying a former holding site on the Mississippi River where enslaved Africans were abused and quarantined before transportation to slave markets across the river. Titled to incorporate the Haitian Creole word that in English translates to “catastrophe,” Katastwóf Karavan interrogates the way in which these dehumanizing and violent experiences have been historicized and underexamined. Through collaboration together and between image and sound, Walker and Moran create an alternative register—with “music as bearer of our emotional history,” as Walker describes—for those catastrophic forces that have shaped culture into the present.