Art World

Installation of Major Commission by Kara Walker opens at SFMOMA

Kara Walker, Fortuna and the Immortality Garden (Machine), work in progress, 2023-2024; © KARA WALKER (PHOTO: ARI MARCOPOULOS)

SFMOMA’s Roberts Family Gallery is unveiling an installation by celebrated artist Kara Walker. The museum’s admission-free, street-level gallery is the location for the site-specific installation titled Fortuna and the Immortality Garden (Machine) / A Respite for the Weary Time-Traveler / Featuring a Rite of Ancient Intelligence Carried out by The Gardeners / Toward the Continued Improvement of the Human Specious / by Kara E-Walker. It opens on July 1, 2024, and will remain on view through May 2026.

Transforming loss from COVID-19

Known for her signature cut-paper silhouettes and drawings exploring the dynamics of history, race and power, Walker has extended her creative reach to monumental installations that challenge communal memory as shaped and concretized through the institutions of state, museum and church. Featuring a complex landscape of mechanized sculptures and elaborate displays, Fortuna and the Immortality Garden (Machine) marks Walker’s most ambitious large-scale public project to date.

Born in Stockton, California in 1969, Walker was raised in Atlanta, Georgia where she attended the Atlanta College of Art (BFA, 1991) and the Rhode Island School of Design (MFA, 1994). She became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2012. 2014 marked Walker’s first large-scale public project, titled A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar refining Plant. On view at the abandoned Domino Sugar refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and commissioned by Creative Time, the massive sugar-covered sphinxlike sculpture was a response to the troubled history of sugar, and reclaimed this burdened site with a majestic marker of self-possession. Additional commissions of note include The Katastwóf Karavan, a steam-powered calliope wrapped in silhouetted tableaus depicting scenes of dehumanizing violence. Katastwóf Karavan first presented at Algiers Point for Prospect.4 in New Orleans in 2017. The wail of the steam organ conjured the ghosts of thousands of enslaved humans held as they awaited the auction block.

Kara Walker, Fortuna and the Immortality Garden (Machine), work in progress, 2023-
2024; © Kara Walker (Photo: Ari Marcopoulos)

The current SFMOMA installation is inspired by everything from antique dolls, to Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, to Bunraku puppetry. Carefully selected historical ephemera come together to examine the fear and loss we experienced as a global society during the COVID-19 pandemic and to address more broadly the memorialization of trauma, objectives of technology, and ways to transcend contemporary society’s ills. The installation consists of a garden of black obsidian — a volcanic glass considered to possess powerful forces of healing and repelling negative energies. Automatons serve as stand-ins for human experience amid the garden. The space becomes an energetically charged space for reflection, healing, respite and hope.

“Fortuna and the immortality Garden (Machine) emerges out of the abject loneliness of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ominous depopulation of our once thriving downtown San Francisco,” explains Eungie Joo, SFMOMA’s curator and head of contemporary art with whom Walker has often worked with over the last 27 years. “With her towering composition of Black automatons enacting ritual and witness amidst a sea of gleaming obsidian — evidence of our geologic and cosmic past — Walker has created a fantastical space of reflection, memorialization and possibility. I look forward to spending many hours with the work thinking about our shared future.”

The Roberts Family Gallery

The Roberts Family Gallery is a free space, ensuring a broad and diverse public can engage with the work. Walker’s installation follows other major exhibitions in this space including Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity, JR’s digital mural The Chronicles of San Francisco and Richard Serra’s Sequence. This installation marks the first time that SFMOMA has commissioned an artist to create a site-specific installation for this gallery and builds on a longstanding relationship between the artist and SFMOMA. In 1997, the exhibition Kara Walker: Upon My Many Masters – An Outline featured her remarkable watercolors and drawings as well as black-paper silhouette installations. The commission is part of SFMOMA’s vision to present work that has strong resonance for its communities and offers opportunities to foster meaningful dialogue. 

Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at

Kara Walker, 2022 (Photo: Ari Marcopoulos, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.)
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