“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?” -Kara Walker “Conversations with Contemporary Artists” (New York: Museum of Modern Art 1999)
Kara Walker, as a contemporary artist, mainly utilizes figural and narrative silhouette paper cut outs to comment on race relations in past and present America, and to illustrate the experience of being a black woman in today’s world. Often, she places these cutout installations in round rooms, so that the viewer becomes a part of the experience (and therefore implicated in the racial issues and tension). I can’t even begin to stress how stunning these pieces are in person, so don’t allow these images to sell her work short.
Kara Walker Installation, Whitney Museum, 2008
All of the figures, regardless of race, are rendered only in black paper, therefore not allowing the viewer to differentiate between ethnicity based on skin tone. Instead, these racial variations are identified only through stereotypical facial features that Walker emphasizes on purpose (ie: obscenely large lips on African-American figures). This is meant to make you uncomfortable and question your own stereotypical notions about different races.
“By poking fun at our constructions of race and character, power, and history, Walker presents slavery as an absurd theater of eroticized violence and self-deprecating behavior, and she dares to laugh at authority, be it the slave master or the whole of official history.” -Philippe Vergne, “The Black Saint Is the Sinner Lady,” Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love (Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2007)
Detail of Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994
The above image shows Walker’s first ever silhouette cut out installation. On the left, a white woman in a hoop skirt (stereotypical dress of the Antebellum South) leans in to kiss a white slave master, while simultaneously revealing a second pair of legs beneath her skirt: those of her hidden female lover. The slave master holds a leash that is attached to a slave.
Walker consistently explores the horrors of slavery and plantation life that were left out of American visual culture during the 18th and 19th century: rape, murder, slave hunts, etc. Instead of these accounts, American viewers saw images like Eastman Johnson’s Old Kentucky Home from 1876, which illustrates relatively happy (but still, of course, poor, crowded, and less sophisticated than the white folk) African-Americans.
Clearly, however, this wasn’t actually what was going on. Walker aims to give credence to the realities of slavery through her work, and often creates images of an overtly sexual and crude nature and dramatizes her scenes to make the viewer extremely uncomfortable as they confront these untold visual tales.
“I don’t know how much I believe in redemptive stories, even though people want them and strive for them. They’re satisfied with stories of triumph over evil, but then triumph is a dead end. Triumph never sits still. Life goes on. People forget and make mistakes. Heroes are not completely pure, and villains aren’t purely evil. I’m interested in the continuity of conflict, the creation of racist narratives, or nationalist narratives, or whatever narratives people use to construct a group identity and to keep themselves whole—such activity has a darker side to it, since it allows people to lash out at whoever’s not in the group. That’s a constant thread that flummoxes me.” –Kara Walker, quoted in David D’Arcy, “The Eye of the Storm,” Modern Painters (April 2006): 59
“Maladies of Power: A Kara Walker Lexicon” (PDF) from the exhibition catalog Kara Walker: My Complement, My Oppressor, My Enemy, My Love available in the Walker Book Shop.