Kara Walker is a black American contemporary artist known for her large cut paper silhouette installations. Her works explore and subvert themes of violence, sexuality, race, gender, and identity. Currently the Tepper Chair of the Visual Arts Program at Rutgers University, she was featured in TIME Magazine as one of the 100 most influential Americans in 2007. To know more about this controversial artist, here are the following facts:
1. Walker was faced with racism when her family moved out of California.
- They moved to Atlanta during a Ku Klux Klan revival. During this time, 29 black children were killed in what became known as the Atlanta Child Murders.
- Away from her multi-cultural hometown, Walker had her first experience of discrimination at 13 years-old when she was called a “nigger” and told she looked like a monkey.
2. She wanted to be an artist from three years-old.
- Walker’s inspiration was her father who was painter and art department chair at the University of the Pacific.
- She originally focused on fine arts before moving to avant-garde styles. Instead of creating for the sake of beauty, she wanted to make statements and tell stories.
3. Walker’s style is a deliberate display of defiance.
- She stopped painting because of its legacy and association with white males. Her art teachers also wanted her to fall within stereotype and create work that was “identifiably black”.
- Inspired by Victorian imagery and to establish her individuality, Walker worked with black silhouettes against white backgrounds.
4. Her works are often sexual and violent in nature.
- Walker takes her inspiration from “bad romance novels and porno” because of their ability to shape cultural frameworks and expose human nature.
- Her first major work depicts disturbing scenes in the American South, based on slave accounts. Included are silhouettes of underage interracial fellatio, babies falling from between a black teenager’s legs, and a child strangling a waterbird.
5. There have been attempts to boycott and censor Walker’s works.
- Older black artists have criticized her for her use of stereotype characters such as small black children, black nannies, and persons of mixed African heritage. A TIME magazine article supported her, praising her ability to turn stereotypes “upside down, spread-eagle and inside out.”
- Guests and employees of the Newark Library complained of Walker’s large drawing in the reading room. It contained a white man forcing a black woman’s head to his groin. The piece was covered with zebra print cloth for a short while.
6. She also uses moving shadows in her works.
- Her own mother walked out during a viewing of Walker’s puppet show film containing sexual and physical violence.
- Her recent projects incorporate a viewer’s shadow into the piece, via light and projections, making it a dynamic element in the image.
Despite the controversy, Kara Walker’s art contains an elegance and simplicity that speaks volumes. By shocking her viewers out of their comfort zone, she leads them to question the status quo in modern society. The brutal honesty in her works is a rallying cry in the continuing fight against inequality and oppression of minorities.