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Artists Kara Walker
Kara Walker Photo

Kara Walker

American Artist

Movement: Conceptual Art

Born: 26 November, 1969 - Stockton, California

Kara Walker Timeline

Quotes

"I make art for anyone who's forgot what it feels like to put up a fight..."
Kara Walker
"One theme in my artwork is the idea that a Black subject in the present tense is a container for specific pathologies from the past and is continually growing and feeding off those maladies."
Kara Walker
"I never learned how to be adequately black. I never learned how to be black at all."
Kara Walker
"The whole gamut of images of black people, whether by black people or not, are free rein my mind...They're acting out whatever they're acting out in the same plane: everybody's reduced to the same thing. They would fail in all respects of appealing to a die-hard racist. The audience has to deal with their own prejudices or fear or desires when they look at these images."
Kara Walker
"I have no interest in making a work that doesn't elicit a feeling."
Kara Walker
"I really love to make sweeping historical gestures that are like little illustrations of novels."
Kara Walker

"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'?"

Synopsis

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.

Most Important Art

Kara Walker Famous Art

Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between 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 nineteenth-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 nineteenth 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 nineteenth century 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."
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Kara Walker Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

A painter's daughter, Walker was born into a family of academics in Stockton, California in 1969, and grew interested in becoming an artist as early as age three. When her father accepted a position at Georgia State University, she moved with her parents to Stone Mountain, Georgia, at the age of 13. In sharp contrast with the widespread multi-cultural environment Walker had enjoyed in coastal California, Stone Mountain still held Klu Klux Klan rallies. At her new high school, Walker recalls, "I was called a 'nigger,' told I looked like a monkey, accused (I didn't know it was an accusation) of being a 'Yankee.'" Walker felt unwelcome, isolated, and expected to conform to a stereotype in a culture that did not seem to fit her. She escaped into the library and into books, where illustrated narratives of the South helped guide her to a better understanding of the customs and traditions of her new environment.

Early Training and Career

Kara Walker Biography

Walker attended the Atlanta College of Art with an interest in painting and printmaking, and in response to pressure and expectation from her instructors (a double standard often leveled at minority art students), Walker focused on race-specific issues. She then attended graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design, where her work expanded to include sexual as well as racial themes based on portrayals of African Americans in art, literature, and historical narratives. Walker, an expert researcher, began to draw on a diverse array of sources from the portrait to the pornographic novel that have continued to shape her work. Other artists who addressed racial stereotypes were also important role models for the emerging artist. While still in graduate school, Walker alighted on an old form that would become the basis for her strongest early work. Widespread in Victorian middle-class portraiture and illustration, cut paper silhouettes possessed a streamlined elegance that, as Walker put it, "simplified the frenzy I was working myself into."

Walker's first installation bore the epic title Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994), and was a critical success that led to representation with a major gallery, Wooster Gardens (now Sikkema Jenkins & Co.). A series of subsequent solo exhibitions solidified her success, and in 1998 she received the MacArthur Foundation Achievement Award. Despite a steady stream of success and accolades, Walker faced considerable opposition to her use of the racial stereotype. Among the most outspoken critics of Walker's work was Betye Saar, the artist famous for arming Aunt Jemima with a rifle in The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), one of the most effective, iconic uses of racial stereotype in twentieth-century art. Nonetheless, Saar insisted Walker had gone too far, and spearheaded a campaign questioning Walker's employment of racist images in an open letter to the art world asking: "Are African Americans being betrayed under the guise of art?" Walker's series of watercolors entitled Negress Notes (Brown Follies, 1996-97) was sharply criticized in a slew of negative reviews objecting to the brutal and sexually graphic content of her images. Saar and other critics expressed concern that the work did little more than perpetuate negative stereotypes, setting the clock back on representations of race in America. Others defended her, applauding Walker's willingness to expose the ridiculousness of these stereotypes, "turning them upside down, spread-eagle and inside out" as political activist and conceptual artist Barbara Kruger put it.

Mature Period

Kara Walker Photo

Walker, still in mid-career, continues to work steadily. Despite ongoing star status since her twenties, she has kept a low profile. In 1996 she married (and subsequently divorced) German-born jewelry designer and RISD professor Klaus Burgel, with whom she had a daughter, Octavia. Interviews with Walker over the years reveal the care and exacting precision with which she plans each project. They also radiate a personal warmth and wit one wouldn't necessarily expect, given the weighty content of her work. When an interviewer asked her in 2007 if she had had any experience with children seeing her work, Walker responded "just my daughter... she did at age four say something along the lines of 'Mommy makes mean art.'"

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Kara Walker Biography Continues

Recent projects include light and projection-based installations that integrate the viewer's shadow into the image, making it a dynamic part of the work. Walker's most ambitious project to date was a large sculptural installation on view for several months at the former Domino Sugar Factory in the summer of 2014. As a Professor at Columbia University (2001-2015) and subsequently as Chair of the Visual Arts program at Rutgers University, Walker has been a dedicated mentor to emerging artists, encouraging her students "to live with contentious images and objectionable ideas, particularly in the space of art."


Legacy

Fierce initial resistance to Walker's work stimulated greater awareness of the artist, and pushed conversations about racism in visual culture forward. In 1998 (the same year that Walker was the youngest recipient ever of the Macarthur "genius" award) a two-day symposium was held at Harvard, addressing racist stereotypes in art and visual culture, and featuring Walker (absent) as a negative example. Rising above the storm of criticism, Walker always insisted that her job was to jolt viewers out of their comfort zone, and even make them angry, once remarking "I make art for anyone who's forgot what it feels like to put up a fight." In 2007, TIME magazine featured Walker on its list of the 100 most influential Americans. In 2008 when the artist was still in her thirties, The Whitney held a retrospective of Walker's work. Though Walker herself is still in mid-career, her illustrious example has emboldened a generation of slightly younger artists - Wangechi Mutu, Kehinde Wiley, Hank Willis-Thomas, and Clifford Owens are among the most successful - to investigate the persistence and complexity of racial stereotyping.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Kara Walker
Interactive chart with Kara Walker's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Adrian PiperAdrian Piper
Andy WarholAndy Warhol
Otto DixOtto Dix

Friends

Chuck CloseChuck Close

Movements

Pop ArtPop Art
Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
SurrealismSurrealism
Kara Walker
Kara Walker
Years Worked: 1987 - present

Artists

Clifford OwensClifford Owens
Wangechi MutuWangechi Mutu

Friends

Mickalene ThomasMickalene Thomas

Movements

Conceptual ArtConceptual Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Janet Oh

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Janet Oh
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein
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Useful Resources on Kara Walker

Books

Articles

Videos

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

on artist

Kara Walker: Narratives of a Negress

By Berry, Ian, Darby English, Vivian Patterson and Mark Reinhardt

Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker Recomended resource

By Shaw, Gwendolyn DuBois

written by artist

Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love Recomended resource

By Kara Walker, Philippe Vergne, and Sander Gilman

More Interesting Books about Kara Walker
The Sugar Sphinx Recomended resource

By Als Hilton
The New Yorker
May 8, 2014

Fleeting Artworks, Melting Like Sugar

By Blake Gopnik
The New York Times
July 11, 2014

Kara Walker & Larry Walker

BOMB
May 8, 2014

transcripts

Conversation

Museum of Modern Art, 1999

in pop culture

Kara Walker Pitcher

MOMA Store

Freedom: A fable (pop-up book by Kara Walker)

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