Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 9

Nursery Rhymes and Fairy Tales


Bluebeard, 2013, Natalie Frank (b. 1980), courtesy of the artist

I move deeper into social reality to works based on nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Frederick Turner reminds us that fairy tales serve a particular function in tradition. They teach “that your own moral decisions and choices are determining factors in making you who you are.”1 Paula Rego uses nursery rhymes in narratives to make sense of her childhood in Portugal, a world with dark secrets, compromise and betrayal. “With unforgettable imagery and ambiguous titles, she subverts the family, the so-called traditional role of women, opera, Fascist governments and any institution that the rest of us might confuse with authority,” we learn from the complete edition of her works in print.2 Her mentoring inspired Natalie Frank, who looked at the characters of German folklore who people the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Collected by the Grimms between 1812 and 1857, the stories were first oral tales produced, collected and shared by women. In subsequent editions, the sexuality and violence were expunged. Frank saw that women in the 19th century social and political world held virtually no power over their fates. The shape-shifting magic recounted in Grimms’ fairy tales took on greater relevance to her 21st century eye. “I started making drawings that could reflect these characters’ vulnerabilities and strengths.”3

Huck Finn Pursues Happiness beyond the Narrow Constraints of your Over-Determined Thesis on Freedom—Drawn and Quartered by Mister Kara Walkerberry, with Condolences to The Authors, 2010, Kara Walker (b. 1969), Cut paper and paint on wall; gouache and ink on paper (7 parts, framed) Installation dimensions variable, approx. 144 x 684 inches (365.8 x 1737.4 cm); Works on paper 11.5 x 15 inches (20.2 x 38.1 cm), each. Photo: Jason Wyche

Kara Walker recasts the tale of Huck Finn as he “pursues happiness beyond the narrow constraints of your overdetermined thesis on freedom–drawn and quartered by mister Kara Walkerberry, with condolences to the authors.” Decorum prevents my providing the complete title; it would be unnecessarily provocative in this context. Known for her silhouette cut-outs, and more recently the “Sugar Baby” installation in the former Domino sugar plant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Walker works with an overt emphasis on the black experience in the Americas. She has said she considers her work political almost by accident. “I respond to the world I live in, but I’m also aware that who I am is shaped by the world I live in, and that world is also informed by mythologies and stereotypes and narratives that move beyond the inner dream space and into real action.”4 Curiously, she also shaped her own world with her choices. Asked by the interviewer about labels attached to her name, Walker answered,

The problem is that the overarching joke of my work was that very early on I positioned myself as a ‘negress,’ and there was a fictional construct that embraced this anachronistic and totally racist naming that I used as a tool. But it’s been like a pie in my face! It’s the naming device that stuck!”5

Walker’s work with cut paper, gouache and ink and the particulars of her identity leads us into the consideration of mythology in artwork.

  1. Frederick Turner, The Culture of Hope: A New Birth of the Classical Spirit, (NewYork: The Free Press), 1995, p. 187
  2. T. G. Rosenthal, Paula Rego: The complete graphic work, 2nd ed., (London, Thames & Hudson), 2012, p. 4.
  3. Kelly Crow, “This Art Star Believes in Fairy Tales,” The Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2014, accessed October 27, 2015,
  4. Robert Ayers, “Almost Political by Accident, Robert Ayers in Conversation with Kara Walker, A Sky Filled with Shooting Stars, accessed October 27, 2015,
  5. Robert Ayers, ibid.