Summary of Kara Walker
Fresh out of graduate school, Kara Walker succeeded in shocking the nearly shock-proof art world of the 1990s with her wall-sized cut paper silhouettes. At first, the figures in period costume seem to hearken back to an earlier, simpler time. That is, until we notice the horrifying content: nightmarish vignettes illustrating the history of the American South. Drawing from sources ranging from slave testimonials to historical novels, Kara Walker's work features mammies, pickaninnies, sambos and other brutal stereotypes in a host of situations that are frequently violent and sexual in nature. Initial audiences condemned her work as obscenely offensive, and the art world was divided about what to do. Was this a step backward or forward for racial politics? Several decades later, Walker continues to make audacious, challenging statements that question and challenge. From her breathtaking and horrifying silhouettes to the enormous crouching sphinx cast in white sugar and displayed in an old sugar factory in Brooklyn, Walker demands that we examine the origins of racial inequality, in ways that transcend black and white.
- Kara Walker is essentially a history painter (with a strong subversive twist). She almost single-handedly revived the grand tradition of European history painting -creating scenes based on history, literature and the bible, making it new and relevant to the contemporary world. Walker's grand, lengthy, literary titles alert us to her appropriation of this tradition, and to the historical significance of the work.
- Walker's form - the silhouette - is essential to the meaning of her work. It is a potent metaphor for the stereotype, which, as she puts it, also "says a lot with very little information." The silhouette also allows Walker to play tricks with the eye. There is often not enough information to determine what limbs belong to which figures, or which are in front and behind, ambiguities that force us to question what we know and see.
- Walker's images are really about racism in the present, and the vast social and economic inequalities that persist in dividing America. More like riddles than one-liners, these are complex, multi-layered works that reveal their meaning slowly and over time.
- While Walker's work draws heavily on traditions of storytelling, she freely blends fact and fiction, and uses her vivid imagination to complete the picture.
Biography of Kara Walker
Early in her career Walker was inspired by kitschy flee market wares, the stereotypes these cheap items were based on. Mining such tropes, Walker made powerful and worldly art - she said "I really love to make sweeping historical gestures that are like little illustrations of novels."
Important Art by Kara Walker
Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred b'tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994)
This extensive wall installation, the artist's first foray into the New York art world, features what would become her signature style. The work's epic title refers to numerous sources, including Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936) set during the Civil War, and a passage in Thomas Dixon, Jr's The Clansman (a foundational Ku Klux Klan text) devoted to the manipulative power of the "tawny negress." The form of the tableau, with its silhouetted figures in 19th-century costume leaning toward one another beneath the moon, alludes to storybook romance. The tableau fails to deliver on this promise when we notice the graphic depictions of sex and violence that appear on close inspection, including a diminutive figure strangling a web-footed bird, a young woman floating away on the water (perhaps the mistress of the gentleman engaged in flirtation at the left) and, at the highest midpoint of the composition, where we can't miss it, underage interracial fellatio.
Silhouetting was an art form considered "feminine" in the 19th century, and it may well have been within reach of female African American artists. Walker uses it to revisit the idea of race, and to highlight the artificiality of that century's practices such as physiognomic theory and phrenology (pseudo-scientific practices of deciphering a person's intelligence level by examining the shape of the face and head) used to support racial inequality as somehow "natural." Walker's black cut-outs against white backgrounds derive their power from the silhouette, a stark form capable of conveying multiple visual and symbolic meanings. Fanciful details, such as the hoop-skirted woman at the far left under whom there are two sets of legs, and the lone figure being carried into the air by an enormous erection, introduce a dimension of the surreal to the image. When asked what she had been thinking about when she made this work, Walker responded, "The history of America is built on this inequality...The gross, brutal manhandling of one group of people, dominant with one kind of skin color and one kind of perception of themselves, versus another group of people with a different kind of skin color and a different social standing. And the assumption would be that, well, times changed and we've moved on. But this is the underlying mythology... And we buy into it. I mean, whiteness is just as artificial a construct as blackness is."
This and several other works by Walker are displayed in curved spaces. Taking its cue from the cyclorama, a 360-degree view popularized in the 19th century, its form surrounds us, alluding to the inescapable horror of the past - and the cycle of racial inequality that continues to play itself out in history. With its life-sized figures and grand title, this scene evokes history painting (considered the highest art in the 19th century, and used to commemorate grand events). Loosely inspired by Uncle Tom's Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous abolitionist novel of 1852) it surrounds us with a series of horrifying vignettes reenacting the torture, murder and assault on the enslaved population of the American South. These include two women and a child nursing each other, three small children standing around a mistress wielding an axe, a peg-legged gentleman resting his weight on a saber, pinning one child to the ground while sodomizing another, and a man with his pants down linked by a cord (umbilical or fecal) to a fetus.
Walker's use of the silhouette, which depicts everything on the same plane and in one color, introduces an element of formal ambiguity that lends itself to multiple interpretations. For example, is the leg under the peg-legged figure part of the child's body or the man's? What is the substance connecting the two figures on the right? We would need more information to decide what we are looking at, a reductive property of the silhouette that aligns it with the stereotype we may want to question.
Walker's critical perceptions of the history of race relations are by no means limited to negative stereotypes. Many of her most powerful works of the 1990s target celebrated, indeed sanctified milestones in abolitionist history. Her apparent lack of reverence for these traditional heroes and willingness to revise history as she saw fit disturbed many viewers at the time. Untitled (John Brown), substantially revises a famous moment in the life of abolitionist hero John Brown, a figure sent to the gallows for his role in the raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859, but ultimately celebrated for his enlightened perspective on race. Astonished witnesses accounted that on his way to his own execution, Brown stopped to kiss a black child in the arms of its mother. In a famous lithograph by Currier and Ives, Brown stands heroically at the doorway to the jailhouse, unshackled (a significant historical omission), while the mother and child receive his kiss. Walker's depiction offers us a different tale, one in which a submissive, half-naked John Brown turns away in apparent pain as an upright, impatient mother thrusts the baby toward him. The child pulls forcefully on his sagging nipple (unable to nourish in a manner comparable to that of the slave women expected to nurse white children). Brown's inability to provide sustenance is a strong metaphor for the insufficiency of opposition to slavery, which did not end. Additionally, the arrangement of Brown with slave mother and child weaves in the insinuation of interracial sexual relations, alluding to the expectation for women to comply with their masters' advances. By casting heroic figures like John Brown in a critical light, and creating imagery that contrasts sharply with the traditional mythology surrounding this encounter, the artist is asking us to reexamine whether we think they are worthy of heroic status.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Kara Walker
- Kara Walker: Narratives of a NegressBy Berry, Ian, Darby English, Vivian Patterson and Mark Reinhardt
- Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara WalkerOur PickBy Shaw, Gwendolyn DuBois
- Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My LoveOur PickBy Kara Walker, Philippe Vergne, and Sander Gilman
- Kara Walker: Dust Jackets for the NiggeratiBy Hilton Als, James Hannaham and Christopher Stackhouse