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Kara Walker Artworks

American Artist

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

Born: 26 November, 1969 - Stockton, California

Artworks by Kara Walker

The below artworks are the most important by Kara Walker - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred b'tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994)

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."

The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (1995)

The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (1995)

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.

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Untitled (John Brown) (1996)

Untitled (John Brown) (1996)

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.

No mere words can Adequately reflect the Remorse this Negress feels at having been Cast into such a lowly state by her former Masters and so it is with a Humble heart that she brings about their physical Ruin and earthly Demise (1999)

No mere words can Adequately reflect the Remorse this Negress feels at having been Cast into such a lowly state by her former Masters and so it is with a Humble heart that she brings about their physical Ruin and earthly Demise (1999)

"I wanted to make a piece that was incredibly sad," Walker stated in an interview regarding this work. "I wanted to make a piece that was about something that couldn't be stated or couldn't be seen." Against a dark background, white swans emerge, glowing against the black backdrop. As our eyes adjust to the light, it becomes apparent that there are black silhouettes of human heads attached to the swans' necks. Flanking the swans are three blind figures, one of whom is removing her eyes, and on the right, a figure raising her arm in a gesture of triumph that recalls the figure of liberty in Delacroix's Lady Liberty Leading the People. The procession is enigmatic and, like other tableaus by Walker, leaves the interpretation up to the viewer. Like other works by Walker in the 1990s, this received mixed reviews. Some critics found it brave, while others found it offensive. While her work is by no means universally appreciated, in retrospect it is easier to see that her intention was to advance the conversation about race.

Darkytown Rebellion (2001)

Darkytown Rebellion (2001)

Having made a name for herself with cut-out silhouettes, in the early 2000s Walker began to experiment with light-based work. In Darkytown Rebellion, in addition to the silhouetted figures (over a dozen) pasted onto 37 feet of a corner gallery wall, Walker projected colored light onto the ceiling, walls, and floor. The effect creates an additional experiential, even psychedelic dimension to the work. Shadows of visitor's bodies - also silhouettes - appear on the same surfaces, intermingling with Walker's cast. With their human scale, her installation implicates the viewer, and color, as opposed to black and white, links it to the present. Our shadows mingle with the silhouettes of fictitious stereotypes, inviting us to compare the two and challenging us to decide where our own lives fit in the progression of history.

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A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant (2014)

A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant (2014)

This work, Walker's largest and most ambitious work to date, was commissioned by the public arts organization Creative Time, and displayed in what was once the largest sugar refinery in the world. The monumental form, coated in white sugar and on view at the defunct Domino Sugar plant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, evoked the racist stereotype of "mammy" (nurturer of white families), with protruding genitals that hyper-sexualize the sphinx-like figure. Attending her were sculptures of young black boys, made of molasses and resin that melted away in the summer heat over the course of the exhibition. Sugar in the raw is brown. White sugar, a later invention, was bleached by slaves until the 19th century in greater and greater quantities to satisfy the Western appetite for rum and confections. Sugar cane was fed manually to the mills, a dangerous process that resulted in the loss of limbs and lives. This site-specific work, rich with historical significance - calls our attention to the geo-political circumstances that produced, and continue to perpetuate, social, economic, and racial inequity. A powerful gesture commemorating undocumented experiences of oppression, it also called attention to the changing demographics of a historically industrial and once working-class neighborhood, now being filled with upscale apartments. Sugar Sphinx shares an air of mystery with Walker's silhouettes.

Related Artists and Major Works

Skat Players (Card-Playing War Cripples) (1920)

Artist: Otto Dix (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Showing both his Dadaist and Cubist influences, Dix makes a clear social statement using his bold technique in this painting. The skat players are war veterans horribly disfigured and crippled by their service, yet they are still able to play cards. Skat was a card game favored by Krupps, the German manufacturers of weapons. Dix uses the repetition of the cards, the chair legs, and the stumped limbs of the men to build a composition that is disturbing in form as well as content.

Bunnies (1966)

Movement: Pop Art (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Sigmar Polke (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

After Polke co-founded Capitalist Realism in 1963 in Düsseldorf, Germany, with Gerhard Richter and Konrad Leug, he began to create paintings of popular culture, evoking both genuine nostalgia for the images and mild cynicism about the state of the German economy. He began simulating the dot patterns of commercial four-color printing (Raster dots) around the same time as Lichtenstein started replicating Ben-Day dots on his canvases. In Bunnies, Polke uses an image from the Playboy Club depicting four of their "bunnies" in costume. By recreating the Raster dot printing technique in this painting, Polke disrupts the mass-marketing of sexual appeal, because the closer the viewer gets to the work, the less they see. Bunnies and the rest of Polke's Raster dot paintings, do not invite a deep, personal identification with the image but rather the images become allegories for the self as it lost amidst the flood of commecial imagery. The dissonance between the inviting sexuality of the appropriated image of the Playboy bunnies and the distancing effect of the Raster dots echoes the interplay of feelings and emotions felt by the artist, both yearning for the mass-culture advertised life and repelled by it at the same time. Polke's vision of popular culture is far more critical than any of the New York artists, and is rooted in the skeptical attitude held by the Capitalist Realists. Rather than the "cool" detachment of New York, Polke cleverly critiques popular culture and how it affects the individual using the same mass-market image-making techniques.

Mao (1973)

Artist: Andy Warhol (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Warhol combines paint and silkscreen in this image of Mao Zedong, a series that he created in direct reaction to President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China. Warhol took the black and white image of Mao from his Little Red Book (Mao's famous communist publication), and created hundreds of different sized canvases of the totalitarian ruler. Some of these paintings are as large as 15 feet x 10 feet, a scale evoking the dominating nature of Mao's rule over China and the awesome cult of personality Mao wielded. This monumental size also echoes the towering propagandistic representations that were being displayed throughout China during the Cultural Revolution. But by creating hundreds of such images, and lining them up on the wall, Warhol made the image of Mao into a supermarket product - like Coca-Cola bottles - lined up on the shelves (and available in small, medium, and large). Warhol's Mao is now a consumer product, a basic building block of capitalism - or the very idea that communism is against.

Warhol goes even further. The graffiti-like splashes of color, the red rouge and blue eye shadow, literally 'de-faces' Mao's image - an act of rebellion against the Communist propaganda machine by using its own heralded image against itself. Warhol uses modernist art devices such as expressionistic brushstrokes around Mao's face as a further pun: the brushstrokes are a sign of personal expression and artistic freedom - the very ideas that Mao's Cultural Revolution was against.

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