an artist you should know: Kara Walker

I actually discovered Kara Walker in an old issue of Oprah magazine--someone had left it at my job and it says something about how dull my job can get when I am reduced to reading Oprah's publication. My consolation, I suppose, was learning about the work of Kara Walker, who creates vast cut-paper installations dealing with themes of race, sexuality and identity. She also employs shadow, performance and video into her work.

Walker was born in Stockton, CA, in 1969, and her family moved to the South
when she was in her early teens. She received her BFA from Atlanta College of Art and her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. It was during her graduate studies, in 1993, that she began working with the silhouette, which is tied to her contemplations of identity, race (and racism), as well as a look back to the portrait-making process of centuries past, when only the very wealthy could afford oil portraits. The lower classes made do with silhouette portraits, which at once portrayed and obscured the sitter. (On a somewhat related note, they used to make us replicate this practice in elementary school during studies of the colonial period. We all totally hated it.) She says of the silhouette, in an interview with PBS, "The silhouette lends itself to avoidance of the subject. Of not being able to look at it directly, yet there it is, all the time, staring you in the face."

Walker's work is rather startling, to put it mildly. Her depictions of African and African-American people, for example, are often uncomfortable to l
ook at; Walker bluntly identifies them by race by using such politically incorrect markers as big lips and "nappy" hair, as well as typically "African" (i.e. scant) clothing. They look like the kinds of illustrations you might find in some eighteenth- or nineteenth-century book written by a white person about black people (you know, something about "Picturesque Slavery," which, by the way is part of a title of one of Walker's pieces), something really cringeworthy and embarrassing by today's standards. Seriously, just describing them is uncomfortable for me.

Walker sets these characters of hers in sweeping, fantastical tableaux, inflicting horrific violence on one another, including rape, dismemberment, and immolation, and these scenes often involve children. She plays with the various concepts that have been applied to African Americans, and more specifically, to African-American women. The expressionless silhouettes, however, remain emotionally remote, despite their activity, and force the viewer to decide what's really going on, and what statement Walker is making. Her charged images have, in fact, sparked some ire among other, older African-American artists who partook artistically in the fight for civil rights who feel that her caricature-like images are insensitive and degrading. It probably doesn't help that she also employs an arcane and somewhat ridiculous linguistic habit for the titles of her installations--things like "Gone, An Historical Romance of Civil War As it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of Young Negress and Her Heart," (based, of course, on Gone With the Wind. An image from that piece can be seen at top.), or the more, um, prosaic "Darkytown Rebellion," or that she will refer to herself as "The Negress" in the titles of her work.

There were no images of Walker's work in the magazine, but the descriptions of them made me search her on Google, and I was immediately a fan. I love her brashness, and I love her complex, history- literary- and artifact-based approach to creating art. For such troubling, essentially socio-political-statement images, there is a certain sick sort of humor in them, along with an intensely personal point of view on race, sex, class and relationships. One feels one is reading a picture book of Walker's experiences navigating the racism, sexism and the preconceived notions so prevalent in our society. For their abject violence, the images are delicate and masterfully rendered. Because of their lack of detail, there are times when it takes the viewer a minute to figure out exactly what is going on--you know it's a human form in some kind of paroxysm, but what exactly are they doing/is being done to them? Then you figure it out, and it's usually quite dreadful, and the result is startling; you must peer into the form itself to see the disturbing activity, and if you don't, it merely remains a dark shape. I've included some images, none of which belong to me (it's called "appropriation" in the art world), which show some examples of Walker's use of shadow, and a picture of Walker herself installing an image--mainly for scale, although I do like how her yellow sweater looks in the shot.