Kara Walker, Occupation of Alexandria (2005). Offset Lithography and Silkscreen (39" x 53")
Kara Walker’s large achromatic lithograph presents a scene from the Union’s occupation of Alexandria, Virginia during the civil war. Walker only uses the color black and relies on cross-hatching to express value. Throughout this piece, Walker uses receding lines, proportion, and value to create the illusion of depth. The receding lines meet at a focal point in the center of the composition. Additionally, the objects that are further away from the focal point are generally larger and brighter.
A large portion of the background and the upper-half of the lithograph is a cloudy sky. The cloudiness of the sky is presented by completely parallel horizontal lines with varying widths. Even though these lines are geometric, the changing width of the lines cause the lines to appear more organic from afar. This technique gives the clouds shape and volume.
The lower-half of the picture is a scene of a port revolting against troops that are occupying it. The furthest left portion of the piece is a sequence of buildings that are mainly produced with parallel vertical lines. These buildings create a line that serves as a continuous path for the viewer’s eyes and separates the sky from the rest of the scene. The receding buildings come to an end at a focal point in the center of the composition. Generally speaking, as the buildings recede toward the focal point their value darkens. A mass of people, almost entirely men, are in front of the buildings. It is hard to decipher exactly what the people are doing. Some of the people appear to be throwing punches and violently rioting, while others are waving their top hats in repudiation of the occupation, or appear to be standing and merely observing the presence of the Union’s military forces. These people are outlined with a hard edge and are rendered using parallel diagonal lines. Some of these lines are slightly curved.
In front of this mass of people is an empty space that separates the people from the troops. A few soldiers with horses prevent the civilians from encroaching on the marching soldiers. A similar vacant area exists on the right side of the troops. These areas are much brighter and display more white than the rest of the composition. This contrast highlights that area of the lithograph and brings the viewer’s attention to the troops. Every soldier is in uniform and holding a bayonet. The troops are marching in rectangular brigades in perfect unison. These unity creates a pattern that is repeated until the focal point. It appears as though some soldiers are firing their bayonets into the sky which is creating a cloud of smoke above them. This cloud is portrayed by parallel organic lines which intersect with other parallel organic lines and imply movement -- like the clouds of smoke are billowing into the air.
To the right of the empty space that separates the people from the troops is a path that creates a boundary between the lower-left and lower-right portion of the composition. This path can be separated into three areas. The furthest area is a mass of people much like the group of people in front of the buildings. In front of that area is a mostly empty space with an American flag, waving in the wind atop a flagpole, with a man standing underneath it (holding a walking cane? shovel?). The empty white area around the man and the flag highlight the two objects. The foremost area of the path converges with a group of people that are positioned to the right of this path. Some of these people are on the path and some are next to the path, standing on grass.
This area appears as the foremost portion of the composition. Although it is the area closest to the viewer, it is very dark -- much darker than anything around it. This darkness is in contrast with the rest of the composition; the rest of the composition gets lighter as it comes forward. The people in this area are acting in a similar manner to the rest of the townspeople except there are a few elements of this crowd that are distinct.
First, they are portrayed almost entirely as a solid black color. Second, there are some people that are sitting down and expressionlessly looking away from the troops, in contrast from every other person in the scene who are positioned towards the troops. Third, although everyone is a solid black color the race of a few people is suggested by a white cheek or white hands. The race of everyone else is indistinguishable. Third, in contrast with the dark area, there are two people wearing white maid’s-like clothes. It appears to me that the people sitting on the ground and standing in white maid uniforms might be slaves. Behind this group of people is a solid black area of ground that leads to the water. The steamboats on the water and the water itself comprise the majority of the lower-right portion of the composition. The steamboats on the water serve as the antithesis of the buildings on the left. The boats create a line that continues from one boat to another and recedes back into the focal point. The darkness of this lower-right portion directs the viewer's eyes toward the much brighter lower-left portion of the piece.
Lastly, in the far lower-right corner of the lithograph there is an adult women and a young boy (mother and her son?). The two are composed of the most saturated black on the entire composition. The woman is naked except for an african bandana, sitting on her knees, shaking her left hand in a fist towards the sky; her head is tilted upward and her mouth is open as if she is yelling out or crying towards the sky. She has strange entities extending off her body in a vine-like nature. Behind her is the boy who is lying on his stomach with his arms out in front of him as if he is swimming. The proportion, position, and saturation of these two imply that they are not part of the scene.
This woman and boy coupled with the possible slaves amongst the foremost mass of people greatly indicate the content of this piece. I believe this scene is supposed to illustrate the role of the black person during the civil war. Although the result of the war was the abolishment of slavery, it was never the black man’s fight. Even though slaves were the ones tyrannized, the fight was between the white government in the north versus the white government in the south. While some African-Americans did fight in the war, African-Americans as an entire population, were largely observers -- watching, from afar, the livelihood of their entire people being fought over by people who were not them.