In her debut show in 1994 at the Drawing Center in New York, Kara Walker—using black paper cutouts pasted across an expansive white wall—re-created a southern plantation scene that had the epic sweep of Gone with the Wind. Against a lush moonlit landscape, a gentleman at left courts a lady in petticoats, while his sword threatens to poke his bastard child, who is wringing the neck of a chicken; the child’s mother, a slave wench floating in the water, looks on in outrage. Center stage, children engage in sex play, while the wench lifts her leg to do a jig and squeezes out a couple more babies. She then flies off shrieking stage right, carried by her master, whose head is partly buried under her skirt.
Thelma Golden, deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the Studio Museum in Harlem, admits that when she first saw the piece, she instantly wanted to know the race of the artist and then hated herself for the thought. She was relieved to learn Walker was black, but was curious about her.
“These are the slave narratives that were never written,” Golden says. “Kara’s work takes from fact but also fantasy and throws on its head any notion we might have of good and bad, right and wrong, black and white. There are no clear dichotomies.”
Walker, who is representing the United States in this year’s São Paulo Bienal (through June 2) and will be the subject of a major traveling retrospective being organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for 2005, has been a lightning rod throughout her career. Her silhouettes of antebellum racial stereotypes, at once lyrical, lewd, giddy, and horrific, have elicited an uncomfortable blend of emotions in viewers since the moment she first showed them. The Drawing Center show brought her a dozen phone calls a day from artists and curators who were dazzled by her work, as well as offers to exhibit in prominent museums and galleries nationwide. In 1997, at the age of 27, she was the youngest artist ever to receive a MacArthur award. But her work also aroused the anger of an older generation of African American artists who had come of age in the civil-rights era and felt betrayed by her use of degrading stereotypes.
Walker was the target of hundreds of letters sent to politicians and arts organizations by artists such as Betye Saar, who were protesting the presentation of negative images of black people, particularly in museums in which African American artists were underrepresented to begin with. The controversy, which snowballed in the media, led to a 1998 symposium on the subject at Harvard, accompanied by a show of Walker’s silhouettes titled “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.”
On a recent morning at Brent Sikkema, Walker’s gallery in New York, the 32-year-old artist, who is in the process of moving to the city from Maine with her husband and four-year-old daughter, talked about her work and experiences with disarming grace, intelligence, modesty, and humor.
“I think I had naively assumed that the work I was doing would raise a lot of questions, and that, within the black community in particular, it would foster a dialogue more than a diatribe,” Walker says. “But I think the question of whether or not this work should be seen, which was raised in Betye Saar’s letter, was absurd. You look or you don’t look. But I’ll make it as long as I have to.
“The whole gamut of images of black people, whether by black people or not, are free rein in my mind,” Walker continues. “Each of my pieces picks and chooses willy-nilly from images that are fairly benign to fairly charged. They’re acting out whatever they’re acting out in the same plane; everybody’s reduced to the same thing. They would fail in all respects of appealing to a die-hard racist. The audience has to deal with their own prejudices or fears or desires when they look at these images. So, if anything, my work attempts to take those pickaninny images and put them up there and eradicate them.”
Walker was born in Stockton, California, where her father taught art at the University of the Pacific, and she describes her early upbringing and schooling in the 1970s as very multiculturally oriented, in a “Free to be… you and me” sort of way. When she was 13, her father, who came from Georgia, was offered a chairmanship at Georgia State University, and her family moved to the suburbs outside Atlanta.
“That was the culture shock that defines my life,” laughs Walker. “I had thought, ‘I am a worldly girl!’—except for this one thing I didn’t really know much about, which was where we were coming from. Going to Georgia was a little bit like going back in time, with the social mores, the dos and don’ts, the very conservative Christian things (most of which were racially based), the divisions of who’s a good person to talk to and who’s a bad person to talk to, black and white. All in all, it was like being a Martian!”
Walker began to define herself with art in her new environment. She settled into being the weird, quiet girl who took art classes and went on to get her B.F.A. degree at the Atlanta College of Art, where she studied painting and printmaking. She says that her reliance on oil painting stood in the way of what she had to say—she got bogged down grappling with issues of size and symbolism—although she didn’t realize it at the time. There were some little moments between paintings, such as an unrehearsed performance piece, that ended up being more important to her. “It was just a glimmer of me becoming aware of being a black woman trying to make art in a way that she hasn’t seen,” says Walker.
Before going on to get her master’s degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, Walker took a year off, which she describes as a very fertile time. “I really started investigating in a slightly anti-intellectual way how black womanness is being defined from a number of different perspectives, because I didn’t seem to be defining it myself,” she says. Working in a bookstore in Atlanta, she came into contact with a lot of Harlequin romance novels and material laden with the southern mythology of subjugation she had been ignoring, or trying to.
“I began reading these novels and got very interested in that way of couching inconsistent desires into one format,” Walker says. As though reading from a back-cover blurb, she breathlessly intones: “It’s about power, it’s about submission, it’s about glorified rape fantasies! There’s always a heroine who’s strong and wins in the end and gets what she wants, and all these background characters. It’s a really intricate way of linking the reader with the heroine with the author. Everyone’s involved in this titillation. That’s what I wanted to do.”
During graduate school, Walker pored over books of early Americana, portraiture, and miniatures to get a feel for colonial history, while in her own copious drawings inventing a hybrid character who evolved into the negress. A small piece she painted on glass opened her eyes to the possibilities of the silhouette format. It was a response to a 19th-century postcard of a little black girl with rags on and knotted hair, posing in profile with a fan. The caption was: “‘Some class, eh?’”
“It’s her voice and it’s t
he voice of the viewer,” says Walker. “It was such a loaded image. I painted a kind of coon face with big eyes and big lips and spent a long time in my studio looking at this silhouette. It was really just this blank space that you could project your desires into. It can be positive or negative. It’s just a hole in a piece of paper, and it’s the inside of that hole. That was the bolt of lightning.”
The silhouettes she began cutting out of black paper might not have taken on such panoramic proportions had it not been for the serendipity of the Drawing Center show that came along just months after she graduated from RISD. On a lark, Walker had dropped off some slides at the registry there, and she soon got a call asking if she would like to try her hand at a 50-foot wall in an upcoming group show of emerging artists. “I had to invent some things, like how I was going to put it up there,” says Walker, who used adhesive. While she had done some sketches in advance, she did all of the actual drawing and cutting on the spot at the gallery in a matter of days. “It was created in sort of a fit of ecstasy,” she says. “It set up a model for my career thus far.”
Madeleine Grynsztejn, who included Walker in the 1999 Carnegie International, recalls that student artists were standing in line to assist Walker, but all she asked for was a long table and rolls of paper, which she drew on, cut out, and glued herself in an extraordinary one-woman effort. Grynsztejn gave Walker the balcony of the museum’s 19th-century hall of sculpture to work with, knowing it was a charged environment and feeling that Walker was the artist to best address it. In her installation The Emancipation Approximation, which will be shown again this winter at the National Center for Contemporary Art in Rome, Walker layered her cutouts in both black and white paper on large steel gray panels ringing the balcony, her images—which included Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox, Leda and the Swan, the mistress beheading girls with an ax, and a boy kissing a chicken’s ass and dropping eggs into a frying pan—engaging in a harshly ironic dialogue with the classical marble statues and the columns enclosing the balcony.
“Her work was shown alongside three-dimensional white-marble figures that corresponded to the founding of a Western civilization which birthed slavery, among other things,” says Grynsztejn, who is now senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Part of the reason her art works so well is because it is keenly attuned and responsive not only to the site but also to her hand. She works very quickly, and you can see that speed in the sleekness of the contours of the work.”
“She is a virtuoso,” affirms Golden. “Her process—this head-hand-eye thing—is phenomenal, given the myriad options she might have to use technology to fabricate what she does. I also find that some of Kara’s images that are most conceptually disturbing—like the woman on the chopping block—are often the ones that are most beautiful. Any of the various images of the little nigger wench as she wreaks her havoc are some of the most lyrical passages in her work.”
The element of beauty is very important to Walker. “Working with such loaded material as race, gender, sex, it’s easy for it to become ugly,” she says. “I really wanted to find a way to make work that could lure viewers out of themselves and into this fantasy. Seduction and embarrassment and humor all merge at a similar point in the psyche—vulnerability. That’s a tough thing to achieve from a stationary object.”
Walker’s newer work quite literally brings the viewer into the story. In her show “American Primitive” last fall at Brent Sikkema, where her prices range from $7,500 for small works on paper to $150,000 for installations, she used old-fashioned overhead projectors positioned around the floor to cast colorful landscape designs over the cutouts on the walls. As viewers moved around and crossed in front of the projectors, their own silhouettes joined the insurrection scene of Darkytown Rebellion, populated with amputee runaways and nursing mothers in an animated kind of shadow theater.
For the São Paulo Bienal, Robert Hobbs—the United States commissioner, who is the chair of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University—selected Walker’s 85-foot cyclorama Slavery! Slavery! as the centerpiece. First shown in 1997 at the Walker Art Center, it’s her send-up of the famous cyclorama in Georgia depicting the Battle of Atlanta. Also included are two pieces from 1998: Cut, a self-portrait conflated with Mary Poppins clicking her heels and committing suicide (“a cultural cliché trying to self-destruct,” according to Hobbs), and Letter from a Black Girl, a tirade by a fictional freed slave directed to both a former master and an art-collecting boyfriend that begins, “Dear you hypocritical fucking twerp,” and comes back to the refrain, “I am left here alone to recreate MY WHOLE HISTORY.”
Hobbs is interested in how Walker’s work parallels the culture of collecting blackface memorabilia that developed in the 1980s. “She, too, is collecting examples of white racism. If you consider a silhouette, it’s formed from an external light beaming on a figure. What is that light? It happens to be white racist attitudes,” says Hobbs, adding that blackface collectibles are not limited to the United States; he found them in flea markets around São Paulo.
Considering who has influenced her development as an artist, Walker mentions people ranging from Goya to Robert Colescott to her father to Andy Warhol. “What always gets me in museums is work by ‘anonymous.’ I love ‘anonymous’!” she states with vehement laughter. “There’s this thing that exists, that was made by a human being, in a time and a place, about something they knew or saw or did. Those are the ones that knock me out.”
Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.