In my Art History class, I recall our instructor glossing over Kara Walker and her masterpieces of black silhouettes against white walls. Walker was hurriedly described as “a contemporary African-American artist who discusses the intersection of race, gender and sexuality.” I caught seemingly benign and cartoon-ish tidbits of Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress, 1994 and Her Heart and slivers of After the Deluge, 2006 in that class but we never had a full discussion of who Walker is or the true heft of what her work implies about America’s insane issues with color and women and who’s having sex with who.
Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Negress and Her Heart, 1994
Once I delved deeper into this Stockton, California-born, raised-in-Atlanta artist, I learned that she is one of those creatives who treats art as an opportunity to challenge, indict, evoke and disturb. The culture shock she experienced when her family moved from California to Georgia around 1982…I get it. (It is oh so familiar. LOL) And the stark differences and similarities between two states in the same damn nation obviously stuck with her as she discovered art and the kind of artist she wanted to be.
Her works of immersive installations incorporating life and larger-than-life size silhouettes, drawing, painting, film, video, light projection and statues are designed to be studied at length–and at once trigger introspection. For example, her use of silhouettes expresses a familiarity with the subject matter and yet an unwillingness to see things clearly; we are all complicit in this black-and-white world we’ve created yet unwilling to accept any blame. Yeah, chew on that and then swallow, if you dare.
Arrested. That’s the only one word I can use to describe my reaction to Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, 2014. This two month installation in New York’s Domino Sugar Factory made me think critically about the role of the Black woman in America. The way she is perceived, the potency of her sexuality, her indomitable strength, her many overlooked and underappreciated contributions versus the way she perceives herself, her worries, her fears, her “sweetness” and sometimes lack thereof. (Though you can no longer see this installation in person, you can see a video about it here.)
Kara Walker’s work is not for the faint of the heart, nor is it for anyone who is unwilling to confront the truth about America, its dark past or its equally shady present. But I feel her work is necessary to help all of us avoid making the same mistakes of the past in order to form a more perfect future. I hate that at one time, she and her work were protested by other African Americans. But I do hope that you will dare to experience it and come away with some important self-discoveries as I have.
To learn more about Kara Walker and her art, click here.