The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin

Select a silhouette below to learn more about its symbolism.

The three equestrian figures refer to Gutzon Borglum's Confederate Memorial monumental, high-relief carving on Stone Mountain.

This figure represents Robert E. Lee atop his horse named Traveler. Riding backwards, his pose and billowing cape allude to Emanuel Leutze's iconic painting Washington Crossing the Delaware

This figure of an abolitionist sharecropper falling down a hill is a reference to the struggle these tenants faced fighting for fair working wages and equal labor rights.

This figure of an impaled boy who has fallen on his back in agony epitomizes the extreme vulnerability of enslaved people. His abuse is made all the more savage with the likelihood of General Davis's horse trampling him while a missing boot and posterior-penetrating sword suggest sexual violence.

A young civil war soldier plants a flag or is stabbing the female figure on the ground with its flagstaff. Walker's graphic depiction of graphic violence underscores the cruelty and horror of war, lost in romanticized, toned down representations of the Civil War.

This woman wearing slave dress carries a bindle over her shoulder. Her liberated figure here, walking north refers to the Great Migration between 1916 and 1970, when more than six million African Americans moved north and west, away from an agrarian life designed to disenfranchise African American in search of economic opportunities.

Two barefoot figures in slave dress are shown in a burlesque horse costume. This likely refers to the racist trope of the minstrel show, a form of popular entertainment until as recently as the 1960s. In minstrel shows, white performers dressed in blackface and reinforced malicious stereotypes about people of color.

The three equestrian figures refer to Gutzon Borglum's Confederate Memorial monumental, high-relief carving on Stone Mountain.

This riderless horse belongs to Stonewall Jackson, whose figure is omitted. The unsaddled horse rears up in panic.

Above Jackson's horse is the swaying body of a young lynched man with an erection. This figure references both racist stereotypes of Black masculinity, and also the white supremacist violence and terrorism that led to 589 lynching victims murdered in Georgia between 1877-1950. Stone Mountain was the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915.

A blindfolded woman — perhaps an allegorical figure of justice — coaxes a mule with a carrot. The mule carries the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader who was also an Atlanta native. King's visionary leadership in nonviolent, direct action against systemic racism and segregation stands in contrast to violence of the war and the legacy of the Confederate leaders carved on the face of Stone Mountain.

On the horizon, a triumphant Black female dressed in military fatigues holds a fried chicken leg and ragged flag while she stands on a heap of amputated limbs. Beside the hill, a figure with an amputated foot reaches towards the tattered flag. The amputated limbs may allude to photographer Mathew Brady's historical images of Civil War field hospitals and the war's dead and injured.

Here William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general that burned Atlanta and leveled the south on his March to The Sea, waves a torch. Unlike the idealized torch of the allegorical figure of Valor, Sherman's flame threatens to engulf the entire scene. Sherman's show of force ultimately helped secure a Union victory, but his vicious tactics were later used to valorize the Confederacy in Lost Cause narratives.

On the horizon is depicted a struggle between an enslaved woman on horseback and a slave owning plantation woman. Their clash occurring near the end of Walker's narrative frieze conjures General Sherman's Reconstruction Era promise of forty acres and a mule to freedmen after the end of the war. Rights guaranteed by the Freedmen's Bureau Act of 1865 including the distribution of land, however most land allocated after the war was restored to its pre-war owners. The Black male figure silhouetted in white within the slave owner's petticoat suggests the economic bondage of subsequent Jim Crow laws that circumvented guarantees of freedom.

This standing figure with a sword holding aloft a flame refers to an allegorical sculpture of Valor installed at the base of Stone Mountain, glorifying the figure of the Confederate soldier. To the right of this figure, a small black girl clutches a severed head, alluding to the loss of innocence attended by the violence of slavery, racial terrorism and segregation in the South.

In the distance, a convalescing soldier in an antebellum-era wheelchair is about to be run through with a sword by a woman dressed in a stereotypical Black nursemaid or nanny costume. The violence of the image undercuts the racial caricature of the comforting, non-threatening "mammy" archetype.

The three equestrian figures refer to Gutzon Borglum's Confederate Memorial monumental, high-relief carving on Stone Mountain.

Here, Jefferson Davis's horse, Blackjack, is bound and is carried by an enslaved nude female in bowed braids: An enslaved person carrying a white slave-holder on horseback is a recurring motif in Walker's work.


Kara Walker

Kara Walker (American, b.1969) works across media to address racial prejudice and inequality embedded in contemporary society. In her best known work, she uses silhouettes to create provocative imagery using a visual vocabulary dating to the antebellum era. Walker's exaggeration of racist stereotypes and the graphic depiction of violence in large-scale installations parodies the genteel, old fashioned form of miniature silhouette portraiture popular in the 1800s. Her installations satirize the false propriety of the slaveholding Old South, speaking directly to issues of race, identity, privilege and injustice in contemporary society. Walker employs racist stereotypes of past and present in order to raise our awareness of bigotry's stubborn persistence.

At the age of 13, Walker moved from Stockton, California to Georgia where her father, artist Larry Walker, had accepted a teaching position at Georgia State University. Walker received her BFA from the Atlanta College of Art and went on to earn an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. In 1997, at age 27, Walker became the youngest ever MacArthur Fellow. Since then, her work has been exhibited at such major institutions the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York which organized her mid-career retrospective exhibition in 2007.


Kara Walker

Kara Walker came of age in the shadow of Stone Mountain's monument to the Confederacy. The relief carving of three Confederate generals, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee, is dedicated to the so-called "lost cause." That ideology casts the Civil War as an honorable struggle for the Southern way of life, while denying the central role of slavery in the conflict.

If you visit Stone Mountain today, you can ride a cable car to the top, take a scenic riverboat ride around an old-time southern town, or witness a nearby plantation featuring a collection of historic buildings and farm animals. In the evening you can see fireworks and a laser light display or watch a documentary at Confederate Hall about the Battle of Georgia.

The only acknowledgment of slavery at Stone Mountain is the presence of two picturesque slave houses at the theme park's plantation. You won't learn that nearly 600 black men, women, and children were lynched in Georgia between 1877-1950 or that 52% of incarcerated population today in Georgia is African American. Nor will you learn that Atlanta was the cradle of the civil rights movement, is the center for black entrepreneurship in the country, and has the largest black middle class in the country in addition to the countless accomplishments and triumphs of the African American community despite Georgia's history of slavery and segregation.


Kara Walker

The installation of The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin on a curved wall, surrounding and enveloping the viewer, borrows its form from panoramic paintings that were popular in the 1800s. The Battle of Atlanta (1886), better known as the Atlanta Cyclorama, represents a surviving example of this format. It carries a multilayered history, serving first as a traveling entertainment, then as a symbol of the so-called Lost Cause supporting the Confederacy, and now as a lens through which to view Atlanta's complicated relationship with the Civil War.

Painted in Milwaukee by a group of German artists, the massive painting depicted a crucial victory for the Union Army. The painting toured the country, its colossal scale immersing viewers in the events that unfolded across its surface. As the painting reached the southern states, promoters shifted the rhetoric around the events it depicted, now claiming it represented a Confederate triumph. In 1893, while the Cyclorama was in Atlanta, the financial backers ran out of funds and sold it. It has remained in the city ever since.

In 2014, a group of public and private supporters announced the move of The Battle of Atlanta from its longtime home in Grant Park to the Atlanta History Center. The painting underwent extensive conservation and research to ready it for public view.