Kara Walker

The Emancipation Approximation
These large-scale lithographs, measuring 44 x 34 inches, were executed in solid fields of black, grey and white which mimic her cut paper silhouettes. These powerful pieces relate to an enormous installation titled "The Emancipation Approximation" that Walker installed at the 1999 Carnegie International. The suite of aquatint etchings in the show have a different feel than the silhouette works, and are akin to the small, illustrative and controversial watercolors from Walker's "Negress Notes."

The silhouette, popular in the 19th and 18th century as women’s art, is employed today as a narrative device by Kara Walker to give a jolt of graphic recognition to a subject matter which would often be too gruesome to tell in any other format. By distilling the images to stark black and white, mostly in silhouette, Walker lulls her viewers into the murky waters of the history of African-Americans on this continent before the full scope of her subject matter is realized. An example of one of these paper cut-out installations is illustrated below.

PASTORAL, 1998
Wall painting in black 72 x 80 inches
Limited to 15 installations, with a signed and numbered certificate
$35,000.

"Pastoral is a large painted black silhouette on a white ground whose crisp and complex outline brings to mind delicate paper cutouts, but whose image evokes something more sinister and perhaps more humorous. A seated negroid woman, holding a sickle, is mounted by the carcass of a colossal sheep. The sheep's head and her profile together make a grotesque face. The power relations between the two are ambiguous. While the sheep is clearly on top, his legs are off the ground and he defecates either in fear or out of sheer disrespect. The sheep, popularly incapable of individual decision, appears quite assertive. It is not clear whether the woman is empowered or oppressed by the animal on her back. Walker's work is controversial in that it examines the rather uncomfortable, sexually-charged relationships between masters and slaves. Just as the image is ambivalent, so too is the means used in creating it. Convex and concave black and white shapes vie for the roles of ground and figure, neither conveying volume more successfully than the other. The traditionally white sheep and conventionally black slave are rendered equal by their colorless tone."

- text by Paul Edmunds from the exhibition 'One Night Stand' at Joao Ferreira Fine Art, Capetown, South Africa


Born 1969, Kara Walker is an African American woman who has taken her place at the forefront of the contemporary art scene trailing a storm of controversy, alternating between derision and praise for her work. From her small, intense drawings to her wall-scale paper silhouette cutouts, she presents a range of racial and sexual narratives that are provocative, unsettling and often difficult-to-view. Her works convey an uneasy mixture of historical facts and prejudiced fictions that engage the viewer in an unsettling dialogue about the nature of racism and sexism in our culture and in our nation's history.

Walker has been making enormous, even room-sized, installations using the silhouette format in cut paper for several years now. The silhouette, popular in the 19th and 18th century as women's art, is employed today as a narrative device by Kara Walker to give a jolt of graphic recognition to a subject matter which would often be too gruesome to tell in any other format. By distilling the images to stark black, gray and white silhouettes, Walker lulls her viewers into the murky waters of the history of African-Americans on this continent before the full scope of her subject matter is realized. Once in that swamp there is no turning back and Walker navigates with an assured hand and an ability to remain buoyant in the face of all adversity.



Installation: From the Bowel to the Bosom, cut paper silhouettes

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 1997 Exhibiton Catalog:

"The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that's also what the stereotype does. So I saw the silhouette and the stereotype as linked. Of course, while the stereotype, or the emblem, can communicate with a lot of people, and a lot of people can understand it, the other side is that it also reduces differences, reduces diversity to that stereotype."

"There is a tendency to preach to the converted and reiterate themes of blackness. In the new work, (her older work being text-driven political art.) I wanted accessibility, something that was easily read and could operate on some sort of innocuous level to engage people - then I could pull the rug out from under them." - Kara Walker

Dan Cameron, Art & Auction:

"What makes Walker's work even more impressive, however, is the directness with which she tackles themes from American history, especially interracial sexuality. Her visual narratives of miscegenation in the antebellum South were startling in their own terms, but they also conveyed a sharp awareness of how America is still desperately seeking a way to turn the lip service we give equality into a lived reality."

From Walker's catalog from the SFMOMA exhibition, Spring 1997:

"These are images that lurk in the subconscious, and in her art expose contradictions and tensions of the race in America that have grown up over centuries of lies and insecurities, exploitation and vulnerabilities. Precocious and subversive, Walker's work provokes the catharsis achieved by public as acknowledgement of these suppressed histories and their effect on the psyche."

The silhouette, popular in the 19th and 18th century as women’s art, is employed today as a narrative device by Kara Walker to give a jolt of graphic recognition to a subject matter which would often be too gruesome to tell in any other format. By distilling the images to stark black and white, mostly in silhouette, Walker lulls her viewers into the murky waters of the history of African-Americans on this continent before the full scope of her subject matter is realized. An example of one of these paper cut-out installations is illustrated below.

Once in that swamp there is no turning back and Walker navigates with an assured hand and an ability to remain buoyant in the face of all adversity. Walker has been making enormous, room-sized, installations (like the paper cut-out above) using this format for several years now. This silhouette transfers effectively to her other media, especially her print works.

She has been producing prints regularly, many of which are also available through our gallery.

Her aquatint etchings have a different feel than the silhouette works and are more akin to the small watercolor drawings from her "Negress Notes" series (you can see a selection of pieces from this series at the foot of this page), although several editions do incorporate the silhouetted figures.

In response to Walker's exhibition at Wooster Gardens, Cameron writes:
"Pasting life-size black paper silhouettes onto the white walls, Walker rendered a darkly imaginative history of the antebellum South. The work's beauty was countered by the decided sense of sexual and murderous menace lurking among her characters. Walker's world was all black, but only literally. With her nursery school motif, she also underscored the tendency of contemporary art..."

"(The prints from Landfall Press present) a panoramic view of an Antebellum swampland wherein mythic and stereotypic characters, Negro and otherwise, respond to outrageous demands with benign passivity. Illicit sex and violence are suggested as the means by which freedom is attained. The Master/slave narrative is expanded and inverted to include authoritarian control over children, the landscape and the self. From left to right this suite of aquatints reads like the table of contents in a romantic novel: The Beginning, The Hunt, The Chase, The Plunge, The End. The remainder of the story is couched in polite silence--the kind of silence which harbors racism, distrust, fear and intense and obsessive love."

- Kara Walker

"The characters and stories that are portrayed are both alluring and highly disturbing, beautiful but often repugnant as well. She does not shy away from depicting taboo subjects: sexual, scatological, or violent. History and psychology meld, so that social relations and internal identity, desires and nightmares, cannot be separated. She renders figures and tells tales that have been imagined but suppressed, known but stricken from official histories. These are images that lurk in the subconscious, and in her art expose contradictions and tensions of race in America that have grown up over centuries of lies and insecurities, exploitation and vulnerabilities. Precocious and subversive, Walker’s work provokes the catharsis achieved by public acknowledgment of these suppressed histories and their effect on the psyche."



Landfall Press writes:
"The work of Kara Walker presents seemingly charming narratives, which on closer investigation reveal themes of racial relations, exploitation, violence, and sexuality. In media including drawings, paintings, cut-out silhouettes, and prints, Walker's imagery offers Rorschach inkblots, as unsettling to its viewers as their own responses. Both appealing and disturbing, the scenes ultimately force us to reinterpret our received histories.
Kara Walker was born in 1969, in Stockton, California. She earned a BFA from Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. Walker's work has been included in numerous group and solo exhibitions, and in 1997 the artist received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur grant. She made her first printed edition at Landfall in 1995, and more recently completed a series of etchings, and a linoleum cut entitled African American." © Landfall Press 2000

From Carnegie International 2000:
The collision of fact and fiction is at the core of Kara Walker’s explorations of the history of race relations in the United States. Walker likens her process of cutting out near-life-sized silhouettes of characters she invents, based on such sources as nineteenth—century slave narratives, to the process of stereotyping itself — both involve reducing figures to their emblematic profiles. The elegant and lyrical line of Walker’s cut edges, embellished with curling, ribbon-like flourishes and touches of whimsy, is a foil to the jolt that overtakes the viewer as her narrative is slowly revealed. Figures and vignettes emerge and transform as she creates them — at first victim, now victimizer, appealing and disturbing in equal measure. She creates a complex reading of history that is at once seductive and confrontational — visions that complicate human interactions, making it impossible to simplify the entangled and intensely personal struggle of racism. Her work functions like psychological inkblots to engage feelings about the entire history of race relations — the artist’s, our own, and the nation’s.
© Carnegie International 2000

THE NEW YORK TIMES October 12, 2007
Art Review Kara Walker
Black and White, but Never Simple
By HOLLAND COTTER

If you have any doubt that racism is alive and well and on a continuous shooting spree in the American psyche, why not ask the experts? Clarence Thomas will have an opinion on this. So will Madonna. G. Constantine, the Columbia University Teachers College professor whose office door was defaced with a noose this week. Or ask the African-American artist Kara Walker, whose exquisite, implacable, loose-cannon retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art is about race first and last.

Ms. Walker first came to art world attention in 1994, when she was 24, with a mural she produced at the Drawing Center in SoHo. It was a narrative panorama with a long, goofy, old-timey title:  Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.  And it was made in an unusual way, from black-paper silhouette figures cut by hand and affixed to the gallery wall.

Go to: The New York Times or open entire review here: NY Times Review

Kara Walker
1991 Atlanta College of Art, Atlanta, Georgia, B.A.
1994 Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island, M.F.A.
California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, California


Selected Further Reading:
California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, California. Capp Street Project: Kara Walker (1999). Exhibition brochure, interview with the artist by Lawrence Rinder.

Art Pool, Museum in Progress, and the Vienna State Opera, Vienna, Austria
Kara Walker, Safety Curtain, 1998/99 (1998). Texts by Vitus H. Weh and Nancy Spector.

Hannaham, James. Pea, Ball, Bounce: Interview with Kara Walker, Interview (November 1998): 114-19.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California. Kara Walker: Upon My Many Masters—An Outline (1997). Exhibition brochure, text by Gary Garrels and interview with the artist by Alexander Alberro.

Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. Kara Walker (1997). Exhibition catalogue, designed and written by Kara Walker.

Emily Hall, arts critic for The Stranger, May 3, 2001:
"Controversy in the art world revolves more around matters of morality than matters of conscience. Think of the kinds of artists who are considered provocative: Robert Mapplethorpe (black men's genitals) or Chris Offili (Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung), or even the quieter furor around the work of David Wojnarowicz's alienated gay-love images. You really don't have to look very far to find offended people; the indignation switch is easily tripped.

The conversation over Kara Walker's work has been more complicated. Her life-size cutout silhouettes of imagined slave narratives are full of acts that challenge the most enlightened sensibilities--sodomy, pedophilia, severed limbs, scatological events. That these things are happening between antebellum slaves and their masters invokes a whole other set of reactions, not the least of which are guilt, discomfort, and loss.

When Walker started showing her work - right after finishing the Rhode Island School of Design's graduate program - it immediately got the attention (both flattering and not) of writers and art followers all over the country. She's not the first artist to address the ravages of slavery through art, but she seemed to have located a nerve no one was aware of. It's partly her spot-on choice of medium: The silhouette, a 19th-century portrait style favored by the well-to-do, is at the same time suggestive and reductive, like a stereotype, a connection Walker herself makes quite plain in interviews. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, she said, "I guess the 'truth' of an image or situation within a whole piece occurs when the viewer is enticed to fill in the blank spaces. She is faced with the discomfort of realizing just how many bizarre and sometimes violent fantasies already occupy her mind." No wonder people find her work upsetting; realizing this is akin to realizing one's own embedded prejudice (or its less kind cousin, bigotry).

These images are dialectical: fact working against fiction, horror shot through with whimsy, beauty that is also blasphemous. To say they are barbed is a terrible understatement, but it is also inaccurate to say that they are unequivocal in their meaning. In fact, they can be quite ambiguous. In a silk-screen being shown among Walker's work this month at the Greg Kucera Gallery, there's a man checking his watch in a leisurely manner while a small child urges him on: His features read as "black," he's wearing a shabby approximation of evening clothes, and he has an enormous, high-shelf ass. Is this a caricature of the lazy Negro? Or a real person who has survived only in crude, broad strokes? Is it funny or appalling?

The feeling that there is no right way to look at this work echoes down through the criticism and scholarship that has been written about it. White critics have been taken to task for describing Walker's hair (of all things) when writing profiles of her. That she wears her long hair in braids, and that non-blacks notice it, rings like an insult; it's a fetishization, another way that the white establishment presses down on black artists who do or do not conform to expectation. If this is true, then it's possible that a white viewership exerts the same pressure, and we are made complicit simply by looking at her work. We do, in a sense, consume an artist's work when we look at it; in this case, we are consuming the artist herself, and we are getting it wrong.

Kucera is showing mostly silk-screens, with one cutout and a suite of four etchings. The silk-screens are from a series called The Emancipation Approximation, and they're quite a bit smaller than life-size. This diminishes their power a bit, but only a bit. The images are still startling: two figures covered in bird shit, a woman in what might be tribal dress--or it might be abundant pubic hair--falling through space, a woman contemplating a field of severed heads. The emotional truth of the images proves them in a way that history books do not, which seems to be the ever-loving moral--and the conscience--of this slippery work: a disruption of history's confident stance. Walker does a damn good job of it."

Mike Daniel, Dallas Morning News, January 8, 1999:
"Since 1996, Kara Walker's art of African-American stereotype and self-perception has drawn both tremendous praise and terrific ire. Her works are enticing because of their superficial simplicity, but they quickly turn disconcerting, dirty and, to some, patently offensive.

The 29-year-old Ms. Walker, a black Atlanta native now living in Providence, RI first displayed her now-controversial life-size images depicting antebellum life at SoHo's Wooster Gardens in 1996. The meticulous black-paper cutouts are inspired by silhouetting, a form of craft portraiture popular in the 19th century for its approachable yet mysterious qualities.

Through these classic constructions, she tells a series of grotesque scatological and sexual tales of plantation slave life, which she considers a historical reality suppressed or ignored by popular culture and political mores. Specifics are best left unwritten here, but the portrayed acts can be viewed as funny at one point, blasphemous at another and revolting at yet another.

The New York art press embraced Ms. Walker as a bold visionary after the Wooster Gardens exhibition, which came less than two years after she earned her master's in fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design. She gained a spot in the prestigious Whitney Museum of American Art's "Biennial" exhibition in 1997 and became the youngest recipient ever of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's "genius" fellowship later that year.


The artistic success met with disapproval from some African-American art figures, especially artist Bettye Saar, who initiated a letter-writing campaign against Ms. Walker's depictions. The debate continues even after several East Coast symposiums, numerous journal articles and several more exhibitions comparing and contrasting racial motives and characterizations."

Kara Walker earned her BFA from Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. She began exhibiting in 1991 in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work has since been included in many international group exhibitions such as La Belle et La B?te, Mus?e d?Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1995); Conceal/Reveal at SITE Santa Fe; New Histories, Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston (1996); no place (like home), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1997); Global Vision: New Art from the ?90s, Deste Foundation, Athens; Secret Victorians, Contemporary Artists and a 19th-Century Vision, Hayward Gallery for the Arts Council of England, London (1998), which also appeared at Armand Hammer Museum of Art, Los Angeles (1999); and Other Narratives, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston (1999). Numerous solo shows of Walker's work have been presented, including those at Wooster Gardens/Brent Sikkema, New York (1995, 1996, 1998); Henry Art Gallery, Seattle; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago (1997); California College of Arts and Crafts; and Oliver Art Center, Oakland (1999). In 1997 Walker received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant.

Walker has participated in numerous national and international exhibitions. Her recent solo museum shows include The Hanover Kunstverien (2002), The Deutsche Guggenheim (2002), University of Michigan Museum of Art (2002) and The Tang Museum/Williams College Museum (2003). A book accompanied each of these exhibitions, most recently Narratives of a Negress (MIT Press). Recently her work was seen in the Centro Nazionale per le Arti Contemporanee, Rome (Fall 2003). An upcoming solo projects include the Tate Liverpool (2004) and the Walker Art Center (2005), The Whitney Museum of American Art (2007 - 2008).

Her work was an important part of our exhibition, "Civil Progress: Life in Black America" in 1997.