On Being Kara Walker's Daughter
Octavia Bürgel writes about growing up with a noteworthy, Black, female, artist as her mother.
Images courtesy the author
Editors Note: On Mother's Day, we're celebrating contemporary artists who challenge the idea that women have to make a choice between motherhood and an art practice. Octavia Bürgel is the 19-year-old daughter of American interdisciplinary artist Kara Walker, and an artist in her own right. The New York City-based photographer is currently studying at Oberlin College, has had her work featured in Zug Magazine and Lenny Letter, and currently has zines on sale at Dashwood Books. Creators reached out to Bürgel and asked her to write a personal essay about what it's like to have a mother who is certifiably a "genius."
My mother raised me strong, and good, and I am very grateful. I cannot claim to have had an unremarkable upbringing. My parents, both artists, exposed me to a conceptual world far beyond the perception of many of my peers and encouraged me to pursue my artistic interests. Yet I remain mystified when people make assumptions about my upbringing having been in some chaotically lenient household.
At some point in my youth I realized that my mother, Kara Walker, had accrued a decent amount of success. At that point it was made clear to me I was not to treat her any differently than I had prior—and she gave me no reason to, so I didn't. Like most other mothers I know, mine soothes and protects, dotes and encourages, cooks and cleans and plays, jokes, annoys, confounds… In reality, I have never thought of myself as an artist's daughter, but solely as my mother's daughter; and since my mother does most things artfully I inherited her sensibilities anyway.
This is not to say that she shielded me from the art world. Growing up I was privy to all of its trends and controversies. But my mother, the art world, and I function as an ever-evolving trio, and while my mother and I each require the other two to sustain, I cannot say that the art world has needed me for anything.
In a recent phone call, she tells me that I seemed to have made my mind up about art by the time I was five. At the 2002 Documenta11, I found myself frustrated by a piece by Brazilian conceptual artist Clido Meireles. Titled Disappearing Element/ Disappeared Element (Imminent Past) , the work consisted of a series of stands selling popsicles made of plain ice. Deeply disappointed by the flavorlessness of my "treat," I staunchly proclaimed, "Oh I get it, being an artist just means making something that tricks people." As a child, my proximity to art imbued in me a profound skepticism. Still, as I grew older my interests began to lead me down that same road, and I find myself falling into the family trade.
During the aforementioned phone call, she admits that she sometimes hid behind me. Using me as either a reason to not go to events or bringing me to events and using my presence as a reason to not talk to people. I am fine with this.
My mother and I often joke about the expectation that all the daughters of contemporary Black artists know each other, and honestly it is a trend that is generally true. But the novelty of their success is not lost on me. Being my mother's daughter has proven to me that, even in the seemingly bottomless chasm of modern politics and current events, Black women's history of perseverance is so deeply ingrained that we will continue to resist and rebuild to create equitable futures.
In writing about my mother's successes, both in her career and in raising me, I realize that I never put much thought into the two distinct worlds she inhabited, because she navigated them both so effortlessly.
My mother is a mother. And an artist. And the two never felt like they were incompatible.
Follow Octavia Bürgel on Instagram.