Portrait of Kara Walker by Chuck Close
Kara Elizabeth Walker|
November 26, 1969
Stockton, California, U.S.
|Education||Atlanta College of Art, Rhode Island School of Design|
|Known for||Conceptual art, multimedia art, text art, painting, printmaking, collage|
|Notable work||Darkytown Rebellion,no place (like home), A Subtlety|
|Awards||MacArthur Fellow, Larry Aldrich Award, the Deutsche Bank Prize, American Academy of Arts and Letters|
Kara Elizabeth Walker (born November 26, 1969) is an American contemporary painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker who explores race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity in her work. She is best known for her room-size tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes. Walker lives in New York City and has taught extensively at Columbia University. She is serving a five-year term as Tepper Chair in Visual Arts at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University. She was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2018.
Walker was born in Stockton, California, in 1969. She lived with her father, Larry Walker (b. 1935), who worked as a painter and professor. Her mother Gwendolyn worked as an administrative assistant. Reflecting on her father's influence, Walker recalls: "One of my earliest memories involves sitting on my dad's lap in his studio in the garage of our house and watching him draw. I remember thinking: 'I want to do that, too,' and I pretty much decided then and there at age 2½ or 3 that I was an artist just like Dad."
Walker received her BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. Walker found herself uncomfortable and afraid to address race within her art during her early college years. However, she found her voice on this topic while attending Rhode Island School of Design for her Master's, where she began introducing race into her art. She had a distinct worry that having race as the nucleus of her content would be received as "typical" or "obvious."
According to The New York Times art critic Holland Cotter, "Nothing about [Walker's] very early life would seem to have predestined her for this task. Born in 1969, she grew up in an integrated California suburb, part of a generation for whom the uplift and fervor of the civil rights movement and the want-it-now anger of Black Power were yesterday's news." Walker moved to her father's native Georgia at the age of 13, when he accepted a position at Georgia State University. This was a culture shock for the young artist: "In sharp contrast with the widespread multi-cultural environment Walker had enjoyed in coastal California, Stone Mountain still held Ku 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 is best known for her panoramic friezes of cut-paper silhouettes, usually black figures against a white wall, which address the history of American slavery and racism through violent and unsettling imagery. She has also produced works in gouache, watercolor, video animation, shadow puppets, "magic-lantern" projections, as well as large-scale sculptural installations like her ambitious public exhibition with Creative Time called A Subtlety (2014). The black and white silhouettes confront the realities of history, while also using the stereotypes from the era of slavery to relate to persistent modern-day concerns. Her exploration of American racism can be applied to other countries and cultures regarding relations between race and gender, and reminds us of the power of art to defy conventions.
She first came to the art world's attention in 1994 with her mural Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. This cut-paper silhouette mural, presenting an Antebellum south filled with sex and slavery was an instant hit. At the age of 27, she became the second youngest recipient of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's "genius" grant, second only to renowned Mayanist David Stuart. In 2007, the Walker Art Center exhibition Kara Walker: My Complement, My Oppressor, My Enemy, My Love was the artist's first full-scale U.S. museum survey.
Her influences include Adrian Piper's "who played with her identity as a light-skinned black woman to flush racism out of hiding using" political self-portraits which address ostracism, otherness, racial "passing," and racism,Andy Warhol, and Robert Colescott, who inserted cartoonish Dixie sharecroppers into his version of Vincent Van Gogh's Dutch peasant cottages.
Walker's silhouette images work to bridge unfinished folklore in the Antebellum South, raising identity and gender issues for African-American women in particular. However, because of her confrontational approach to the topic, Walker's artwork is reminiscent of Andy Warhol's Pop Art during the 1960s (indeed, Walker says she adored Warhol growing up as a child). Her nightmarish yet fantastical images incorporate a cinematic feel. Walker uses images from historical textbooks to show how African-American slaves were depicted during Antebellum South. The silhouette was typically a genteel tradition in American art history; it was often used for family portraits and book illustrations. Walker carried on this portrait tradition but used them to create characters in a nightmarish world, a world that reveals the brutality of American racism and inequality.
Walker's work pokes holes in the romantic idea of the past--exposing the humiliating, desperate reality that was life for plantation slaves. She also incorporates ominous, sharp fragments of the South's landscape; such as Spanish moss trees and a giant moon obscured by dramatic clouds. These images surround the viewer and create a circular, claustrophobic space. This circular format paid homage to another art form, the 360-degree historical painting known as the cyclorama. Some of her images are grotesque, for example, in The Battle of Atlanta, a white man, presumably a Southern soldier, is raping a black girl while her brother watches in shock, a white child is about to insert his sword into a nearly-lynched black woman's vagina, and a male black slave rains tears all over an adolescent white boy. The use of physical stereotypes such as flatter profiles, bigger lips, straighter nose, and longer hair helps the viewer immediately distinguish the "negroes" from the "whities". It is blatantly clear in her artwork who is in power and who is the victim to the people with power. There is a hierarchy in America relating to race and gender with white males at the top and women of color (specifically black) at the bottom. Kara depicts the inequalities and mistreatment of African Americans by their white counterparts. Viewers at the Studio Museum in Harlem looked sickly, shocked, and some appalled upon seeing her exhibition. Thelma Golden, the museum's chief curator, said that "throughout her career, Kara has challenged and changed the way we look at and understand American history. Her work is provocative and emotionally wrenching, yet overwhelmingly beautiful and intellectually compelling." Walker has said that her work addresses the way Americans look at racism with a "soft focus," avoiding "the confluence of disgust and desire and voluptuousness that are all wrapped up in... racism."
In an interview with New York's Museum of Modern Art, Walker stated: "I guess there was a little bit of a slight rebellion, maybe a little bit of a renegade desire that made me realize at some point in my adolescence that I really liked pictures that told stories of things- genre paintings, historical paintings- the sort of derivatives we get in contemporary society."
In her piece created in 2000, Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On), the silhouetted characters are against a background of colored light projections. This gives the piece a transparent quality, evocative of the production cels from the animated films of the thirties. It also references the well-known plantation story Gone With the Wind and the Technicolor film based on it. Also, the light projectors were set up so that the shadows of the viewers were also cast on the wall, making them characters and encouraging them to really assess the work's tough themes. In 2005, she created the exhibit 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture, which introduced moving images and sound. This helped immerse the viewers even deeper into her dark worlds. In this exhibit, the silhouettes are used as shadow puppets. Also, she uses the voice of herself and her daughter to suggest how the heritage of early American slavery has affected her own image as an artist and woman of color.
In response to Hurricane Katrina, Walker created "After the Deluge," since the hurricane had devastated many poor and black areas of New Orleans. Walker was bombarded with news images of "black corporeality," including fatalities from the hurricane reduced to bodies and nothing more. She likened these casualties to African slaves piled onto ships for the Middle Passage, the Atlantic crossing to America.
I was seeing images that were all too familiar. It was black people in a state of life-or-death desperation, and everything corporeal was coming to the surface: water, excrement, sewage. It was a re-inscription of all the stereotypes about the black body.
In February 2009, Walker was included in the inaugural exhibition of Sacramouche Gallery, "The Practice of Joy Before Death; It Just Wouldn't Be a Party Without You." Recent works by Kara Walker include Frum Grace, Miss Pipi's Blue Tale (April-June 2011) at Lehmann Maupin, in collaboration with Sikkema Jenkins & Co. A concurrent exhibition, Dust Jackets for the Niggerati- and Supporting Dissertations, Drawings submitted ruefully by Dr. Kara E. Walker, opened at Sikkema Jenkins on the same day.
Although Walker is known for her serious exhibitions with an overall deep meaning behind her work, she admits relying on "humor and viewer interaction." Walker has stated, "I didn't want a completely passive viewer, "I wanted to make work where the viewer wouldn't walk away; he would either giggle nervously, get pulled into history, into fiction, into something totally demeaning and possibly very beautiful."
In 2005, The New School unveiled Walker's first public art installation, a site-specific mural titled Event Horizon and placed along a grand stairway leading from the main lobby to a major public program space.
In 2002, Walker created a site-specific installation, An Abbreviated Emancipation (from a larger work: The Emancipation Approximation), which was commissioned by The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor . The work represented motifs and themes of race relations and their roots in the system of slavery prior to the Civil War.
In May 2014, Walker debuted her first sculpture, a monumental piece and public artwork entitled 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. The massive work was installed in the derelict Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn and commissioned by Creative Time. The installation consisted of a colossal female sphinx, measuring approximately 75-feet long by 35-feet high, preceded by an arrangement of fifteen life-size young male figures, dubbed attendants. The sphinx, which bore the head and features of the Mammy archetype, was made by covering a core of machine-cut blocks of polystyrene with a slurry of white sugar; Domino donated 80 tons of sugar for Walker's piece. The smaller figures, modelled after racist figurines that Walker purchased online, were cast from boiled sugar (similar to hard candy) and had a dark amber or black coloring. After the exhibition closed in July 2014, the factory and the artwork were demolished as had been planned before the show. Walker has hinted that the whiteness of the sugar references its "aesthetic, clean, and pure quality." The slave trade is highlighted in the sculpture as well. Walker also composed the "Lollipop" boys around the sphinx also made of sugar that has turned into molasses. Remarking on the overwhelmingly white audience at the exhibition in tandem with the political and historical content of the installation, art critic Jamilah King argued that "the exhibit itself is a striking and incredibly well executed commentary on the historical relationship between race and capital, namely the money made off the backs of black slaves on sugar plantations throughout the Western Hemisphere. So the presence of so many white people -- and my own presence as a black woman who's a descendant of slaves -- seemed to also be part of the show."
For the season 1998/1999 in the Vienna State Opera Kara Walker designed a large-scale picture (176 m2) as part of the exhibition series "Safety Curtain", conceived by museum in progress. In 2009, Walker curated volume 11 of Merge Records', Score!. Invited by fellow artist Mark Bradford in 2010 to develop a set of free lesson plans for K-12 teachers at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Walker offered a lesson that had students collaborating on a story by exchanging text messages.
The Detroit Institute of Art removed her The Means to an End: A Shadow Drama in Five Acts (1995) from a 1999 exhibition "Where the Girls Are: Prints by Women from the DIA's Collection" when African-American artists and collectors protested its presence. The five-panel silhouette of an antebellum plantation scene was in the permanent collection and was to be re-exhibited at some point according to a DIA spokesperson.
A Walker piece entitled The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos caused a controversy among employees at Newark Public Library who questioned in appropriateness for the reading room where it was hung. The piece was covered but not removed in December 2012. After some discussion among employees and trustees the work was again revealed. Kara Walker visited the New Jersey Newark Public Library to discuss the work and the controversy that went with it. Walker did not stray away from the difficult subjects such as race and history.
The artist Betye Saar thinks Kara's work is "revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves...[and] basically for the amusement and investment of the White art establishment." Saar voiced this on the PBS documentary I'll Make Me a World in 1999. In the summer of 1997 Saar emailed 200 fellow artists, and politicians to warn and voice her dislike and negative opinion about Kara Walker's work. The protesters questioned the "negative images" (by which was meant the deprecating and regressive nature of the blackness displayed.) In their eyes, Walker's version of blackness was a kind of "pandering, a minstrel performance dishing out unmediated stereotypes to whites." This negative attention to Walker's artistic style led to a symposium at Harvard University, Change a Joke and Slip the Yoke, accompanied by the exhibit of her work.
Walker's first museum survey, in 2007, was organized by Philippe Vergne for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and traveled to the Whitney Museum in New York, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the ARC/Musee d'Art Moderne de la ville de Paris.
Among the public collections holding work by Walker are the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Weisman Art Museum (Minneapolis, MN); the Tate Collection, London; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Menil Collection, Houston; and the Muscarelle Museum of Art, Williamsburg, VA. Early large-scale cut-paper works have been collected by, among others, Jeffrey Deitch and Dakis Joannou.
In 1997, Walker -- who was 28 at the time -- was one of the youngest people to receive a MacArthur fellowship. There was a lot of criticism because of her fame at such a young age and the fact that her art was most popular within the white community. In 2007, Walker was listed among Time Magazine?s 100 Most Influential People in The World, Artists and Entertainers, in a citation written by fellow artist Barbara Kruger. In 2012, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Walker is also the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships such as the Deutsche Bank Prize and the Larry Aldrich Award. She was the United States representative for the 25th International São Paulo Biennial in Brazil (2002). In 2016 completed a residency at the American Academy in Rome.
Early in her career, Walker lived in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband, German-born jewelry professor Klaus Bürgel, whom she married in 1996. In 1997, she gave birth to a daughter. The couple separated and their divorce was finalized in 2010. As of 2017, Walker is in a relationship with photographer and filmmaker Ari Marcopoulos.
Walker moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn in 2002 and has been a professor of visual arts in the MFA program at Columbia University since then. She maintained a studio in the Garment District, Manhattan from 2010 until 2017. In May 2017, she moved her art practice to a studio in Industry City. She also owns a country home in rural Massachusetts.