Episode #9 of the course “Ground-breaking contemporary artists”
Kara Walker is an African American artist best known for her panoramic paper-cut silhouettes. She was born in 1969 in California but grew up in Georgia. Walker pushes a flat aesthetic, similar to Andy Warhol’s, into topics of American racial identity. Her work is controversial, highly sexualized, and violent. She prods provocative subjects in a medium that is traditionally considered delicate, often used for portraits. However, the emotional reactions to Walker’s silhouettes are not nostalgic, but evocative. TIME Magazine stated that “her silhouettes throw themselves against the wall and don’t blink.”
Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart
When 3-year-old Walker sat on her father’s knee watching him draw, she decided to be an artist. After receiving a BFA from Georgia State University, she pursued an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. There, she began exploring issues of race. After graduation, the exhibition of her first mural, entitled Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, was an instant success, garnering her international acclaim.
Walker explores relationships between black and white people, especially in the antebellum south, and especially between white men and black women. Her personal relationships with white men act as some influence, but she also considers the violent history of all Americans in her works. Most of her pieces are room-sized murals, but Walker also explores how film, painting, and sculpture address how Americans look at racism with a “soft focus.”
A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
Throughout the 1990s, many African American artists and viewers protested Walker’s works and style. It is argued her work reinforces stereotypes, degrades black identity, and regresses the image of African Americans. One mural was protested so thoroughly in Detroit in 1999 that it was removed, with a promise to be reinstated at a later time. Viewers complained about a controversial drawing at a New Jersey library, causing it to be temporarily covered.
Walker is currently living and working in New York City on the MFA faculty at both Columbia University and Rutgers University.
“Once you open up the Pandora’s box of race and gender… you’re never done.”
“As a child, I was subjected to a lot of spaghetti Westerns and hated them. I wanted the Indians to win – or just not be so sad!”
“Challenging and highlighting abusive power dynamics in our culture is my goal; replicating them is not.”
“I have no interest in making a work that doesn’t elicit a feeling.”
“I trust my hand. If I go into a space with a roll of paper, I can make a work, some kind of work, and feel pretty satisfied.”
“What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art” by Will Gompertz
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