Walker has exhibited widely in the US, and at 27 (she’s now 44) became the youngest person ever to receive the prestigious MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” scholarship. But she has also caused controversy. Exhibitions of her work often provoke strong feelings: staff at a library in Newark, New Jersey, recently reacted with outrage when one of her drawings was displayed there, prompting the head librarian to cover it up. And back when she received the MacArthur grant, she was lambasted by several older African-American artists, including Betye Saar and Howardena Pindell. “There were two strains of criticism,” Walker says. “One was about the work, and who was looking at it, and me feeding into the viewing audience’s preconceived ideas about black people. And the other was that I was just some highfalutin so-and-so.”
Kara Walker is an African American artist who works across many media, exploring controversial themes of race, gender, sexuality, and violence. She is best known for her appropriation of the silhouette, which she has used in room-sized installations, sculptures, and smaller works on paper.
In her installations, film, wall texts, and drawings, Kara Walker uses imagery that seems, at first, old fashioned and quite charming – thus the title of her Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFE LIKE Panaromic Journey İnto Picturesque Southern Slavery or “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (Sketches From Plantation Life).” See the Peculiar Institution as Never Before! All Cut from Black Paper by the Able Hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and a Leader in Her Cause (1997).
Adapting vignettes of working life and leisure from Eastman Johnson’s 1859 painting Old Kentucky Home – Negro Life at the South, this 85-foot-wide mural is laced with acts oppressive and erotic,showing the labor and sexual economies of the antebellum South to be two sides of the same human coin. Of her favorite technique, Walker says: “The silhouette says a lot with very little information,but that’s also what the stereotype does. So l saw the silhouette and the stereotype as linked.” Her work is dedicated to no-holds-barred attack upon stereotypes, including those that would constrain the aggressiveness of black Americans in the name of avoiding conformity to those very stereotypes. It has, as a result, been extremely controversial, not least among other African-American artists”
Kara Walker is an artist painting dramatic murals that attempt to make permanent the most striking clichés regarding black children, poets and reckless slaves in the age of slavery. Her female figures especially are depicted in poses that are sexually degrading and disturbing. Walker presents these stories as cut-out shadow pictures that intentionally reference their inspirations such the Mother Goose illustrations or the shadow portraits of the Victorian era. This format preference by the artist creates a specific kind of disconnection between the nasty content of the pictures and the form of presentation that has good associations. With discordant carelessness, Walker presents scenes that depict lynching, beating and rape. For example in Dance de la Nubienne Nouveaux (1998) a young slave girl dives into a witch’s cauldron with the enthusiasm of a circus performer. Other works emphasize sexual clichés such as a very big African man or an African woman with huge thighs. Still, these pictures imply a childish admiration towards chaos, anarchy and obscenity; instead of reflecting terror or anger. It’s a world in which all the obstacles towards a desired civilized act are removed; left behind are only the repulsive and the most degrading instincts. As an Afro-American herself, Walker is free to develop these pictures to a point no other white artist can. In her hands, clichés full of hatred turn into fertile fields that help evaluate the ways with which pictures can become means of control.
Walker’s works imply that the Afro-American body is a prisoner of systems of oppression. Also working on this subject, Lorna Simpson had first become renowned in the 1980s with her works that combined short texts with intentionally flattened photographs of black women. These “anti-portraits” showed only the backs of people and were usually presented as a series. The texts accompanying the pictures pointed out the invisibility of black women in American society by intentionally not telling us anything about the woman in the picture; and as such weren’t much more informing than sayings or widespread clichés such as “as black as coal” or “as beautiful as a picture”. In the work Guarded Conditions (1989), a series of pictures repeating the image of a black woman whose hands are tied behind her back were accompanied by the texts “sex attacks” and “skin attacks” that pointed out the double weakness of Afro-American women. In her later works, Simpson focused on body details in connection with the experiences of African Americans. She came up with quite clinical definitions regarding black hair, which had influenced a surprisingly wide range of academic literature as it’s a symbol of status in Afro-American identity. Her other works take the female body as their subject matter by focusing on objects such as high-heeled shoes. The emphasis here is on the skillful tricks utilized by women in the name of womanliness. Sometimes the body disappears entirely and appears only in mysterious passages and street scenes, as if to denote its absence. The body returns with videos such as Corridor (1993) which was filmed in both a room from the 17th century and a modernist house. This two-channel projection presents a narrative based on two young black women dressed in the clothes of two different periods, doing routine housework in accordance with the era they’re living in. When the two time periods are considered together, the emphasis is on how the models of behavior concerning gender don’t change even though the periods change.
Walker is at her most provocative when interrogating the stereotyping that defined race relations in the antebellum south, and still exists today. The largest room in her show is lined with “wall samplers”: the cut-out silhouettes that show figures engaged in violent or exaggerated acts: a man bending down to fellate an oversized phallus; a woman in a wide-skirted dress holding a severed head. The effect is to make us question not only the cultural representations of black people (there is, as Walker points out, a whiff of “minstrels and blackface” about some of the figures) but also our assumptions about how skin color defines anyone’s physical characteristics and behavior.
Walker sees a direct line between the racist historical attitudes she examines in her work and current events. She took a road trip last year with her daughter from Brooklyn, where she lives, to the southern states. They visited diners where the heads of old white men turned to give them “the 20-second stare”. They swam in a motel pool, watching the other (white) bathers suddenly vanish; Walker heard a small girl say to her father: “I thought there were no niggers here.”
Then there is the rise of the Tea Party movement, and the distasteful obsession with Barack Obama’s skin color. “There’s so much suspicion around having a biracial president,” she says, “around Obama’s presence on the world stage – the fact that the Tea Party gets coverage as anything other than a fringe group. There’s nothing Obama can say or do as a black man that they’re [willing] to hear.”
Walker is by now used to viewers being discomfited not only by the fact that her work dares to speak openly about race and identity, but that it may even be making fun of such viewers. “It makes people queasy,” she says. “And I like that queasy feeling.”