"My mother is a reserved individual with a strong undertow. My first introduction to Porgy & Bess was through her, although I learned nothing about the opera from her at the time. I must have been quite young, still living in Stockton, California, when she picked up from the library an album of the 1952 William Warfield and Leontyne Price version of the Gershwin opera. My memory is a little dark around the edges, but it seemed to me at the time there was something important about this music and Mom had a particularly private conversation happening with it. Her people came from South Carolina, and, while she never lived there herself, or talked to me about family in those days . . . .
I have often felt that the appreciation I have for this work is partly owed to the air of personal mystery surrounding it. When I hear the opening of “Summertime”, no matter who is singing, “Daddy’s rich, and your mam is good looking”, I always see my mother nodding conspiratorially at the record, and hear her say “you know what THAT means”… well, I didn’t, at the time. And truly I am still not sure—was she suggesting that Daddy was some rich white man? That Ma some attractive such and such? That the baby of address is not who she thinks she is? I could ask her today, what she meant, but I like that there was nothing straightforward about my earliest knowledge of the music. I just felt all caught up in the piece. Mom’s close reading and clipped silences sort of transforming the whole long and interesting legacy of Porgy & Bess as a work of art. For me, like so many listeners, Porgy & Bess belongs to “The Past”, not a balmy southern thing, but a past that is mine.
Unable to break free, seems appropriate as a way to describe my images for this edition. It's hard to claim ownership of these characters, and impossible to wrest them away from their archetypal status. They are archetypes beyond the grand opera theme of “star crossed lovers”; they’ve become archetypes of another no less grand drama, that of: “American Negroes drawn up by white authors, and retooled by individual actors, amid charges of racism, and counter charges of high-art on stage and screen, in the face of social and political upheaval, over generations.” Because they are fraught, I chose to simply let them be paper cut-out caricatures whose full dimensions are alluded to by rubbing. In a sense I wanted to subject those paper figures to pressure, satisfying some implied demand that the artist perform with due diligence, an unpacking of the signifiers “Porgy” and “Bess”. But haven’t they been through enough heartbreak?
Unlike the bulk of my work, in which I plumb erratically and sometimes dangerously through American history using narrative forms and mis-readings of racist texts as the basis, the Porgy & Bess series of images is quite straightforward, more an homage to the feeling of the music. And to that feeling I had as a child of a heavy atmosphere hanging around a timeless act of love." (Kara Waker's Artists Statement regarding the Porgy and Bess Project, from Arion Press)