Artist Spotlight: Kara Walker
Kara Walker is an African-American contemporary artist known for her controversial artwork, considered “shock art” by some critics. Her work, whether its charcoal drawings or her most familiar medium, the black cut-out paper silhouette, explores sexuality, race and gender in an unconventional way.
Born in California, Walker lived a life of diversity growing up in Stockton, California. Her father was a professor and an artist who introduced art to her mother and eventually to her. She would later go on to live in racially divided Georgia that would change her perceptions of race relations in America. In 1991 she received her BFA from Atlanta College of Arts and her MFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. In 1997, she became the youngest recipient of the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant,” which launched her notoriety.
Most of her works center around America’s Antebellum South period-a period where race, gender and sexuality collided and were often explored under violent and oppressive circumstances. Walker’s work encompasses this as she depicts life in this period full of contradictions and juxtapositions; from a Sambo holding a penis in front of a 19th century dressed white woman, to a black slave woman depicted as the biblical figure, Eve. According to a PBS interview, she has been quoted saying that most of her pieces deal with “exchanges of power,” or “attempts to steal power away from others.”
“I knew that if I was going to make work that had to deal with race issues, they were going to be full of contradictions. Because I always felt that it’s really a love affair that we’ve got going in this country, a love affair with the idea of it [race issues], with the notion of major conflict that needs to be overcome and maybe a fear of what happens when that thing is overcome– And, of course, these issues also translate into [the] very personal: Who am I beyond this skin I’m in?”
Over the years, Walker’s artwork has been seen all over the world in many prestigious museums, including the Guggenheim Museum of New York City. In 2007, she was listed as one of the most influential people in the world, according to Time Magazine. She currently resides in NYC as a professor of Visual Arts at Columbia University.
Words that come to mind when I see her work are graphic, satirical, fantastical, humorous, soul-stirring, etc. Her work reminds me of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), where many black scholars argued that all black artists should have a black aesthetic, or black awareness, especially pertaining to their work. While I believe Walker’s work does shed light on the hypocrisy and abhors of slavery and therefore carries a certain level of black awareness, I wonder if BAM activists like Maulana “Ron” Karenga and Amiri “Leroi Jones” Baraka or scholar/ arts lover, W.E.B. DuBois would approve of her work? Would they consider it “revolutionary” enough? I think so, but would they think so? Just some things to think about..