Who remembers as a child when you would make life size silhouettes of yourself by tracing yourself at school in art class? Stepping back and seeing this representation of yourself allowed every kid to play Peter Pan for a few minutes. Artist Kara Walker takes this technique to a another level, with her wall scenes that explore themes of race, gender, and sexuality. Her work has earned her a McArthur Fellowship (at the time she was the youngest fellow ever honored) and earned her the Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2007.
Her technique employs painting, drawing, and cut-paper silhouettes she adheres to walls depicting elaborate scenes referencing history. Her scale ranges from individual life sized to full room cycloramas. Some even include live performance, light displays, or video features. Walker questions our perceptions with images from slavery taken from the text books we all grew up with. Kara’s art is controversial, often forcing people to examine stereotypes and cariacture. Her pieces walk a fine line between social critique and exaggeration, both in subjects depicted and the features of the people she represents. Her work makes you confront your own identity with regards to race.“I’m reducing things down a lot, but I’m also characterizing everything and everyone as a black thing, and it comes from a way of viewing the world, looking for blackness, in its good and nefarious forms.” – Kara Walker
Playing with emotions of desire and shame are also themes Walker’s work explores. Her fun caricature appear cartoon-esque and inviting, making u want to view the jovial moments in her scenes, but then there is always a twist. She also depicts very violent acts of hatred, violation and pain, evidenced by her images of sexual assault, domination, misogyny, and belittling. Her vignettes tell a clear story, where she draws material from history- both fact and fiction. It is clear to see influences from Southern novels and movies represented throughout her work. There is a slight ironic humor in her work, often evoking the nervous laughter at the banal jokes or “toliet humor” around the acts her subjects depict. This depicts the absurdity of slavery and our constructs of race, sexuality, power, and American history. As a viewer you are challenged to question your own reactions to her work… are you too a part of the problems she exposes? The artist also has website with dialogue questions and activities to accompany her work and allow viewers to respond online, encouraging her viewers to not be passive participants.
For her critical look at blacks in America and her attention to detail that goes beyond the walls itself, I applaud Kara Walker for her thought-provoking pieces. Her bravery and boldness to depict scenes that are controversial and at times disarming forces us all to confront our own beliefs and behavior. She takes seemingly simplistic forms and adds a layer of complexity to the work that becomes an”I Spy” like game for the viewer to unearth the full story behind the art. Like all great forms of art, Walker grabs us on multiple levels with one move. Power like that is not easy replicated.