Kara Elizabeth Walker: History Painter and Storyteller

Commenting on her work in a PBS documentary entitled, What Does Resistance Look Like? the American contemporary artist, Kara Walker, noted: “I am not making work about reality; I’m making work about images. I’m making work about fictions that have been handed down to me, and I’m interested in those fictions because I am an artist and any sort of attempt at getting at the truth of a thing, you have to wade through these levels of fictions.”

Kara Walker works very much in the practice of wading through history to arrive at her own conclusions. As a history painter, she bears witness to the occurrences of history and the various lenses through which it becomes fictionalized.  As a portraitist, printmaker, installation artist, filmmaker, and professor who explores race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity in her work, she tells stories based in history that reflect her own point of view. Walker’s stories have a dark underbelly and is meant to make us think both intellectually and reflectively on what it means to be African American, how black women experience their identity in how their bodies are represented, and how our contemporary culture has created a great divide between and among peoples. As she weaves her story, Walker’s images provoke reflection on race, gender, and violence through the stereotypes that she presents, often implying that history has not been an effective teacher. Walker’s art reinforces a particular point of view as much as it provides resistance to its representation and interpretation.

My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love
Kara Walker

Kara Walker was born in Stockton, California, on November 26, 1969. Her father was a painter, and by age 3, Walker had decided to become an artist herself. She graduated from the Atlanta College of Art and received her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1997, Walker became one of the youngest people to receive the MacArthur Genius Fellowship. In 2007, Walker was listed among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.  In 2012, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 2018 to the American Philosophical Society.

Barbara Kruger, commenting on her work in the Time magazine list, wrote: “Walker’s …installations create a profusion of backstories and revisions that slash and burn…She raucously engages both the broad sweep of the big picture and the eloquence of the telling detail. She plays with stereotypes, turning them upside down, spread-eagle and inside out. …Her silhouettes throw themselves against the wall and don’t blink.”

Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats

To understand Kara Walker, one must necessarily explore two main themes. First, is her approach to history where she takes the official record and superimposes upon it her version of truth.  At once, Walker references the grand historical narratives of European history painters while in her use of the official record, she reminds us how the evils of slavery were erased from these documents. As a reviser of official fictions, Walker’s silhouettes fill the gap with traumatic images of brutality and violence that existed then and still exist today.  In the Cincinnati Art Museum prints, Walker leaned on Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden’s lavishly illustrated Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion, published in 1866. Using this source text, Walker makes photo offset lithographic enlargements of wood engravings from the two-volume original. Then, she overlays blow-ups with solid black screen-printed silhouette figures. Walker’s silhouettes interrupt the official record, as if to emphasize that in this tale of brutality and violence, all sides lose.

Signal Station, Summihttps://americanart.si.edu/artwork/signal-station-summit-maryland-heights-portfolio-harpers-pictorial-history-civil-wart of Maryland Heights

Walker’s form – the silhouette – is essential to the meaning of her work. This is where the second theme of her work comes into play because the silhouette or cut-out is a stand-in for the stereotype, which, as she puts it,  “says a lot with very little information.” The silhouette also allows Walker to play tricks with the eye. There is often not enough information to determine what’s going on and these ambiguities force us to question what we see. With the cut-out, Walker creates a vast array of horrors so that it is impossible to tell the fiction from the reality. History as viewed from the eyes of the oppressor and the oppressed are vastly different and this juxtaposition forces the spectator to consider both viewpoints simultaneously. Walker’s complex, multi-layered works only reveal their meaning with careful looking and reflection.

Kara Walker, Darkytown Rebellion, 2001. Installation view, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2007. Photo: Cameron Wittig.

In Alabama Loyalist Greeting the Federal Gun-boats, you see the push-and pull dynamic of differing histories: the crowd runs to herald the Federal troops while the young, shapely African-American woman runs to avoid the violation that awaits her. In Signal Station, Summit of Maryland Heights, the dominating beacon on the hilltop stands juxtaposed with the decimation of the pregnant body fleeing the scene. An Army Train shows the progressive march of colonial power in stark contrast to the hopelessness of the African American bodies in the foreground.

An Army Train

Walker elaborates on her process by noting: “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that’s also what the stereotype does, so I saw the silhouette and stereotype as linked. Of course, while the stereotype, 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.”

Kara Walker: Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit), 2017.

Questions to consider:

  • What is a stereotype that is associated with you?
  • How does it make you feel when you are identified with that stereotype?
  • In what ways can you check yourself when you assign a stereotype to someone who you don’t know?

Anu Mitra is Professor in the Ph.D. Interdisciplinary Studies program at Union Institute & University and facilitator of the Design Thinking and Museum Studies Certificate Programs.

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