Kara Walker is a painter, printmaker, sculptor, installation artist, and filmmaker, who explores American history in narrative art that deals with gender, race, and sexuality. While Walker works with graphite and pastel on paper in works such as “Pastorale” 2010, she is best known for her room-size installations of once-controversial, life-size, black-and-white, cut-paper silhouettes. They are placed on stark white backgrounds or affixed directly onto gallery walls to reveal the violent history endured by African Americans.
While Walker is not known to identify as a feminist, her artworks often depict aggression against girls and women. Her drawings and installations document the relationships between nineteenth century masters and their slaves in the American South. They also reveal the aftermath of slavery when freed African Americans migrated into cities where they continued to experience injustice and a lack of freedom. An example is her “A Work in Progress” 1998, made from cut paper and adhesive.
Her 2014 installation “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” is a 75-foot-long, brilliantly white, sugar-coated sphinx with the head and breasts of a black woman. This majestic and sexualized Sugar Baby resembles a “mammy” character, used in the past to portray happy black female slaves. Its subtitle in part is “a homage to the underpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World.” This work drew more than 100,000 people to Brooklyn’s Sugar Factory, which has since been demolished.
One of her most recent works is “Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit)” 2017. It is a nearly twenty-foot-long mixed-media painting which reiterates her trademark theme: the ravages of the antebellum South. A cast of characters flees an event that is not depicted in the painting but which has clearly resulted in atrocities.
Walker’s art has defied the political mandates of the black arts movements of the 1970s, which sought to uplift African Americans with positive images of Black people and condemnations of racism. She was not always appreciated for portraying the degradation of African Americans. She has said that her work “makes people queasy. And I like that queasy feeling.”
Her works have been shown in the Whitney Museum Biennial exhibition and in the 2002 Sao Paulo Biennial, representing the United States. In 1997, Walker was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant, making her the second youngest person to receive it. In 1999, Walker was the first artist to be featured in the U.C.L.A. Hammer Museum’s ongoing Project Series for emerging artists.
She has participated in dozens of solo and group exhibitions. From October through April, her 2019 “Fons Americanus” filled the central hall of Tate Modern. This work is a chalky white 40-foot-tall cork fountain and a smaller shell-shaped fountain, that leads up to the bigger piece. Referencing the transatlantic slave trade, which benefitted England as well as the United States, the larger fountain contains a black Venus, a noose, sharks, various symbols of racial injustice and the sculpted head of an African boy, whose tears serve as the fountain’s stream.
Her work is part of the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, and San Francisco MoMA.