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Kara Walker

American Artist

Kara Walker Photo
Movements and Styles: Conceptual Art, Identity Politics

Born: 26 November, 1969 - Stockton, California

"I think really the whole problem with racism and its continuing legacy in this country is that we simply love it. Who would we be without the 'struggle'?"

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.

Key Ideas

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.
Kara Walker Life and Legacy

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."

Most Important Art

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