Women in Art: Kara Walker

‘Presenting Negro Scenes Drawn Upon My Passage through the South and Reconfigured for the Benefit of Enlightened Audiences Wherever Such may be Found, by Myself, Missus K.E.B. Walker, Colored’

During my junior year of high school (2008-2009) I was lucky enough to take an art history class. I was even luckier in that I lived in a Chicago suburb, meaning I had access to multiple museums, galleries, and festivals in which I could view amazing artwork. Work by the greats, just a quick train ride away.

One day, our class took a trip down to the  Museum of Contemporary Art for the Jeff Koons exhibit. Koons’s work was interesting, yes, but in my eyes, didn’t hold a candle to this piece.

It filled the room. At first I looked at it and thought, “They’re just silhouettes”. Then I looked closer and jumped. Surprising work, to say the least.

I had my sketchbook with me and wrote the title of the piece down. Luckily I brought this sketchbook (Finished, but it’s nice to have around) to RIT. Upon deciding to further research Kara Walker I immediately scrambled to find it, breathing a sigh of relief when I was able to locate it and read the title of the piece scribbled inside.

It’s an interesting title, isn’t it? At first its length bothered me; I thought it was kind of pretentious. But it really does work with the piece. It adds more detail to an already intricate narrative and helps the audience better understand the work. It is a little bit silly and old-timey, but that’s part of what makes it so effective.

Kara Walker is most well known for her work with silhouettes; room sized tableaus of cut-paper figures exploring America’s tension surrounding race and gender. She utilizes a traditionally stuffy and orderly Victorian medium to express her opinions on oppression and power, race and sexuality. She takes a “boring” medium and makes it theatrical and chaotic. Her work is full of slaves and black Americans being hurt and abused, complying with and being forced into racial stereotypes and caricatures, full of women and men fighting, fornicating, and running amok. Her work is over the top in its depiction of violence, sexuality, and in the features her cut-paper figures possess. It’s meant to shock the viewer. Make us question our attitudes about race.

Walker’s silhouettes fill the room. They surround the viewer and force the us to think about what is being depicted. The fragmentary nature of the narrative invites viewers to participate in the work, making us complicit in these horrible acts. In fact, Walker sometimes displays work in circular rooms, with the intent of making the viewer question whether there is a beginning and end, if there’s a narrative at all. We are engulfed by the world she creates. Walker says of this effect, “I always wanted to make work that would surround the viewer, to place the viewer in an uncomfortable relationship to a type of imagery that undermines all our fine-tuned, well-adjusted cultural beliefs.” Essentially, Walker is trying to bring us out of our comfort zone so that we will think.

As a black woman born in the late 60s, Walker is no stranger to American issues with race. Raised in a California suburb, Walker encountered a culture shock upon moving to Atlanta at the age of thirteen and experiencing increased amounts of racism in her daily life. While California was far from perfect, living in the South proved to be difficult, to say the least.

Here’s more of Walker’s work, including some close ups in which you can see how she exaggerates figures and features to conform to racial stereotypes (Trigger warning: some silhouettes depict sexual violence):

Close up of previous work.


There’s a fine line between something being a commentary on or a perpetuation of racism, sexism, etc. I personally feel that Kara Walker has made it clear that her work is meant to exaggerate and, to an extent, satirize racial tensions in America, while driving home the point that racism was and is horrible (Which you’d imagine most people would understand, but I’ve met too many people who believe that racism wasn’t that big of a deal! And it no longer exists! We’re post racial! Black president! Gah!). However, not everyone views her work as commentary. Some of Walker’s contemporaries view her silhouettes as taking advantage of racial stereotypes to cater to a white audience. They claim that Walker is opportunistically using racial stereotypes to ingratiate herself with a white artistic community–a racist, white artistic community.

It’s difficult to know when work goes too far. And sometimes even the most well thought out work is offensive when removed from its context. I personally believe that Kara Walker has put a lot of thought into her work and is using shocking images to comment on and combat racism.

Whatever the case, Walker’s work has been heavily embraced by the art world. She became successful at a very young age; winning grants and prizes, exhibiting in world-renowned museums and more. She’s an inspiration to young women artists everywhere.

So what say you? Is Walker’s work thoughtful or offensive? I’d love to hear your opinions.

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4 thoughts on “Women in Art: Kara Walker

  1. Briznecko says:

    I personally love Kara Walker. The only time I saw her work in person was a series of…lithographs I believe, that played out a version of the Greek tale of the “Rape of Europa” in the context of the South. These were large scale prints inside frames and hardly the life-sized installations she is known for, but they carried the same sense of shock that accompanies her work. Looking at them made me feel very uncomfortable, as if the act of viewing made me complacent in the sexual abuse of the woman in the narrative, however I could not tear away from the scenes and the kind of serious reflection they inspired within me.

    In that sense, I believe her work is not about titilation for titilation’s sake, but forcing the viewer to see the very dark past of slavery and racism that is still alive and well today. Racism is seen as a thing of the past or romanticized in a way that negates the genuine suffering and abuse African Americans, and easpecially women of color, during that time. As to her acceptance into the white-dominated art world, I think her popularity reflects the assigned “place” of African Americans, especially women of color, in the art world. Their work is supposed to be related solely to their race and critiques of racism, rather than allowing artists of color to explore themes and identities outside of, or not wholly focused, on their race. I erases nuance within discussion of race, much in the same way women artists are normally discussed as part of gender politics exclusively. That is not to say these artists should not explore politics of race and gender, as they are still very relevant today; however, the white-dominated art world prioratizes those artsts who make that their whole agenda rather then part of their conversation.

    • Interesting point about Walker’s popularity within a white-dominated art world. I agree that white, male artists and critics often expect women artists or artists of color to create works relating to their gender or race. Even to the point of excluding such artists creating other types of work.

      In fact, out of the artists of color I can think of, the majority of them create works related to racial identity (I’ve written about a few: Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Chakaia Booker to a certain extent…). And while that’s a valid and intriguing subject I’d like to know more about minority artists addressing other topics. Do you have any suggestions for women artists of color creating work that doesn’t address gender or racial issues?

      • Briznecko says:

        I quite honestly cannot think of any; the ones I do know of make gender and/or race a signifcant part of their work. That is not so much a problem, but in the greater artistic culture I think it fetishizes them or places them into a neat little catagory. Therefore it makes them more outlier or “minority” voices, whereas white/male/strait artists are able to deal with non race/gender issues because their gender and race is normalized and the default in artistic discourse. This is what perpetuates the (white) male-dominated cannon of art history, in my opinion.

  2. Cre8tive says:

    Alma Thomas and Betty Blayton are two artists who cannot be neatly placed in such boxes.

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