Kara Elizabeth Walker
Walker, Kara 1969–
Kara Walker 1969–
Shocking the art world with her black silhouette depictions of blacks and whites engaged in situations ranging from lynchings to rape and even bestiality during the pre-Civil War South, Kara Walker has achieved both notoriety and acclaim in the art world while still in her twenties. “It is hard to think of another artist in the last three or four years who has emerged as rapidly,” commented Alexis Worth on Walker in a 1996 issue of Art in New England.
In a way, Walker’s goal with her art is to make the viewer gasp and laugh at the same time. “I want to provoke the audience in the most enjoyable way possible,” Walker told Artnews “I think of my art as a kind of melodrama, producing a certain giddiness that entertains but also empowers.” A blend of social commentary and humor is clearly in evidence in works such as Before the Battle: Chickin’ Dumplin’, which shows a Confederate solider kneeling to kiss a topless black woman on the breast as she drops a chicken leg in surprise.
Walker employs a nineteenth-century style of art combined with an uncensored modern perspective to highlight the full range of physical and sexual exploitation during the ante-bellum era. Her art installations evolve from drawings or smaller watercolor sketches she renders that help her determine her themes, and some of her shows have included these preliminary studies in juxtaposition with the final artworks. Sometimes she cuts her images right into the wall of the gallery. Many of them life-size in scale and covering entire walls, her works depict blacks in scenes that initially seem straightforward or innocent, but then assault the viewer with their violence and perversity. A case in point is her 1995 installation entitled The Battle of Atlanta, which depicted a young boy and a girl dressed in paper soldier’s hat and crinolines, respectively, as they carry a dagger while heading toward a naked black woman chained to a tree. In her review of the work, Lynn Gumpert of Artnews wrote, “The work engages viewers with its deceptive simplicity and seemingly playful narrative, only to revolt them, compelling them to look in spite of themselves.”
Characters in a Walker installation tend to be easily recognized stereotypes of plantation inhabitants, from pickaninny children to mammies to the “old slave.” Through scenes of interaction between blacks and whites, and between blacks and blacks, Walker offers history lessons in race relations where the border between victim and victimizer is often blurred. Her artworks present contradictory feelings side by side, as blacks are shown being both attracted to whiteness and repelled by whites’ exploitation of them, and admiring of African American heroes while at the same time mocking themselves as blacks. “No one is really flattered here,” stated Roberta Smith of the New York Times in a review of Walker’s works at Wooster Gardens in New York City. “Blacks come off almost as badly as whites....” As Anne Doran wrote about Walker in Grand Street, “Her
Born 1969 in Stockton, CA. Education: Atlanta College of Art; Rhode Island School of Design, M.F.A., 1994.
Had debut in group show at Drawing Center, New York, NY, 1994; had debut solo show at Brent Sikkema and Wooster Gardens, New York, NY, 1995; began working on a piece for Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris, France, 1995; had show at Renaissance Society, Chicago, IL, 1997; sold work for permanent collections of Whitney Museum of American Art and Walker Center, New York, NY; participated in the Whitney Museum Biennial, 1997.
Addresses: Home —Providence, Rhode Island.
technique is a leveling device through which everyone becomes black: both kin and non-kin, each one the disguised, mysterious ’other.”’ “Walker exploits clichés in order to unmask false preconceptions and stereotypes,” added Gumpert in Artnews.
Walker’s sensibility as an artist was shaped to a large extent after she moved from California to Stone Mountain, Georgia, at age thirteen. Stone Mountain has been cited at the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and the teenage Walker was keenly aware of the contrast between Southern gentility and prejudice entrenched in white culture there. “For the first time, she experienced both overt racism and ‘Southern hospitality,’ where, as she puts it, a ‘layer of sweetness coats everything,” remarked Gumpert of Walker’s experience. As a teenager in Georgia, Walker began laying the groundwork for her future artworks in her daydreaming. “I started playing little games with myself, pretending what it would be like if I were a slave,” she told the New York Times Magazine. Before long Walker was questioning the mythology of the South, simultaneously celebrating it and refuting it.
While attending the Atlanta College of Art, Walker began exploring graphic sexual images and the use of cut-out black silhouettes. Part of her inspiration for this artistic direction was her fascination with contemporary pulp-fiction novels that took place in the ante-bellum South, many of which featured passionate scenes of interracial love. As Walker later told Artnews, “My work is intended to function like Harlequin romance novels, which veil themselves in history and encourage women to participate in stories that are not in their best interests.”
Success came to Walker a mere three months after she earned her Masters degree in Fine Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994, when her silhouettes were first seen in a group show at New York City’s Drawing Center. Her work at that show was a fifty-foot long mural entitled Gone: An Historical Romance of A Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart From that point on, her installations have been welcomed into numerous galleries on a regular basis. Many of her early works used passages of text lifted from pornographic romance novels that were presented along with her silhouettes.
Walker’s solo premiere was at the Brent Sikkema and Wooster Gardens galleries in the SoHo district of New York City in early 1995. Shock value was in ample presence in an installation drawing called “Gaining,” which depicted a black girl emerging from the shadows while toting what appears to be a man’s genitals. Smith called Walker’s one-person show “a modest yet impressive solo debut.” In the summer of that year she had a show at Bard College entitled Look Away, Look Away, Look Away, her mocking reference to “Dixie.” By the end of the year she was working on a wall piece for the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, and was also discussing a possible installation for the “Projects Room” of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
In her massive exhibit at Wooster Gardens in the spring of 1996 called From the Bowels to the Bosom, Walker tested her viewer with numerous absurd images. These included a young white girl slicing off her hand, a mammy slaughtering a dog while she smoked a pipe, and black women and a baby who suckle each other. The installation also included some images with moving parts, similar to old-fashioned puppets. “Like soft porn, her cutouts play coyly with concealment and disclosure,” remarked Leslie Camhi in her review of the show in the Village Voice. “Two-dimensional with a vengeance, they draw on the tradition of racist caricature, but layer it with parody and irony, and the stories they tell are more strange than moralizing.”
Walker’s startling images in a 1997 show at the Renaissance Society in Chicago featured a nude black woman vomiting human body parts and another black woman having intercourse with a white master while smiling and picking cotton, among others. Her silhouettes were described by Kathryn Hixson in New Art Examiner as “an amalgam of the fantasies of freedom afforded by oppression and the freedom of revenge, also dictated by those same rules of oppression.”
Part of Walker’s appeal has to do with her revisiting a medium that has been virtually ignored by major artists for over half a century. “We haven’t seen anybody come along using the cut-paper medium since Matisse,” said Susanne Ghez, director and curator of the Renaissance Society in Chicago, in the New York Times Magazine. Her popularity with white audiences is also a landmark for black artists in the U.S. As Maurice Berger, senior fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics of the New School of Social Research in New York City, noted in the New York Times Magazine, “The art world has been profoundly racist. Kara Walker’s case is an instance of triumph, a moment where an African American artist who deals with issues of race and racism in America is actually purchased by white collectors.”
Walker is not surprised by people taking offense at her art. “I can understand it, and I can’t even really talk my way out of it,” she remarked to Julia Szabo in the New York Times Magazine “I can’t say, ‘well, you shouldn’t be offended.’ Why not? It’s a valid response, it’s a valid way to feel.” Some of Walker’s works have been acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Walker A Center for their permanent collections, and her large-scale cut-paper works have been bought at a price tags ranging from $30,000 to $80,000. Despite her own rapid rise to prominence, she continues to think that the price of success is much higher for black artists. “To achieve success as an African American, one must spill out one’s guts constantly,” she told Szabo.
Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994.
The End of Uncle Tom, 1995.
The Battle of Atlanta, 1995.
Before the Battle: Chickin’ Dumplin’, 1995.
From the Bowels to the Bosom, 1996.
Jenkins, Sidney, Slice of Hand: The Silhouette Art of Kara Walker, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, 1995.
Art Forum, September 1996, pp. 92-93.
Art in America, September 1996, pp. 106-107.
Art in New England, December 1995/January 1996, pp. 26-27.
Artnews, January 1997, p. 136.
Grand Street, Fall 1996, p. 34.
New Art Examiner, May 1996, pp. 49-50; April 1997, pp. 41-42.
New York Times, May 5, 1995, p. C30; April 5, 1996, p. C28
New York Times Magazine, March 23, 1997, pp. 48-50.
Village Voice, April 9, 1996, p. 81.
November 26, 1969
Since being awarded a coveted John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1997, Kara Walker has become one of the most celebrated and controversial African-American women artists of her generation. Best known for life-size cut paper silhouette installations that feature ribald and provocative scenes of antebellum plantation life and interracial cultural farce, Walker is also an accomplished draftsperson whose drawings, prints, and paintings in various media—from gouache watercolor to Colombian coffee—are owned by numerous institutions and private collectors.
Kara Elizabeth Walker was born in Stockton, California, where she lived until the age of thirteen, when her family moved to the Atlanta suburb of Stone Mountain, Georgia. The artist has often credited her coming-of-age in a community steeped in a southern culture dominated by the lore of Gone with the Wind as being pivotal to her work. Following high school, Walker attended the Atlanta College of Art and then enrolled as a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design. While working on her master's degree, she became interested in the silhouette, a medium that she felt was uniquely able to communicate complicated sociohistorical and psychoracial issues within a deceptively simple yet visually complex form.
In 1994 Walker's work received much critical acclaim when it was featured in a group show at The Drawing Center in New York City. Following this auspicious debut, many of her silhouettes and drawings that skewer uncannily familiar historical subject matter were exhibited nationally and internationally. In 1997 the ambitious installation The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (1995), measuring up to 50 feet and covering three gallery walls and inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, was included in the Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Whereas Walker's work has been celebrated by the mainstream art world for its technical virtuosity and its biting racial satire, it has also received a great deal of negative criticism from well-established, often older, African-American artists and scholars. Many of these critics fought actively during the 1960s and 1970s to open up an often resistant and blatantly racist art establishment that excluded artists of color (such as the artist's own father, the painter Larry Walker) from exhibition opportunities in the museums and high-profile galleries that are essential to an artist's career. One of the most visible critiques of Walker's work came in 1998 when the assemblage artist Betye Saar, who saw Walker's use of negatively charged racial stereotypes as being at odds with the goals and achievements of the previous generation, mounted a letter-writing campaign to pressure potential exhibition venues to withdraw the artist's work from view.
Despite this limited domestic dissent, or perhaps because of it, Walker's art has been warmly received in many international venues; solo exhibitions have been mounted in Austria (1998 and 2002), Sweden (1999), Switzerland (2000), Israel (2001), Tokyo (2001), Brazil (2002), and Germany (2002). And as Walker's geographic reach has increased, so too has the scope of her work, evolving from the ubiquitous life-size, black-and-white silhouettes of the 1990s into theatrical, transparent, multicolored light-projection installations. One such work, Insurrection! (2000), actively incorporates the viewer into the scene through the use of projectors that have been sequestered in the corners of the gallery walls, thereby making the would-be witness of the static tableau an active participant in the drama.
Two major exhibitions, accompanied by large catalogs, of Walker's work appeared in university art museums in 2002 (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) and 2003 (Skidmore College and Williams College), solidifying her presence within academia as well as the mainstream art world—a world that her father's generation had fought hard to open to the work of African-American artists.
Berry, Ian, Darby English, Vivian Patterson, and Mark Reinhardt, eds. Kara Walker: Narratives of a Negress (exhibition catalog). Cambridge, Mass.: Tang Teaching Museum at Skid-more College, Williams College Museum of Art, and MIT Press, 2003. Essays by Darby English, Mark Reinhardt, Anne M. Wagner, and Michele Wallace. Writings by Kara Walker.
Shaw, Gwendolyn DuBois. Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004.
gwendolyn dubois shaw (2005)