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  • Kai Bradner

The Beauty Of Shadows: An Appreciation of The Works of Kara Walker


Whether through silhouettes or shadows, the dynamic/forceful/commanding painter, sculptor, silhouette artist, and printmaker; Kara Walker has been able to tell generational stories through her art. Struggle and pain are littered throughout the African Community and contemporary artists like Kara Walker have attempted to give these emotions life through art. Much of the African American experience has been based on survival: survival from slavery itself, Jim Crow laws, police brutality, stereotyping, and many other various forms of racism endured by the African American Spirit. Kara Walker has not been afraid to depict the pains and horrors of the African American identity in her art by creating bold, often graphic, artworks that emphasize the pain of what it means to be black in America.

Kara Walker was born and raised in Stockton, California by her artist father Larry Walker, and Mother Gwendoline. When Walker was 13 her father accepted a position at Georgia State University moving from the progressive culture of California to the conservatism of Georgia. Walker has spoken about being called a “nigger” by her high school classmates as well as living near an active KKK chapter. Walker earned her BFA from the Atlanta College of Arts in 1991 and her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design.Walker’s career bloomed soon after as she was awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 1997, becoming one of the youngest recipients of the award at age 28.

Walker weaves together different forms of art, often drawing inspiration from Victorian-era art styles with her use of cutouts and silhouettes. Much of Walker’s art can be seen as disturbing scenes of sexual violence, murder, and other slave-time horrors, along with caricatures and other racial stereotypes are often displayed. One of Walker’s signature pieces “GONE: AN HISTORICAL ROMANCE OF A CIVIL WAR AS IT OCCURRED B'TWEEN THE DUSKY THIGHS OF ONE YOUNG NEGRESS AND HER HEART” presents a sprawling romance story set in the antebellum south. Upon first glance, one might not see the horrors displayed. Acts of sexual violence are personified by carefully placed silhouettes, unafraid, bold imagery plainly displaying the horrors of the past, the pain inflicted upon African Americans, specifically black women


Walker’s versatility must also be mentioned, one of her most memorable pieces is “A SUBTLETY, OR THE MARVELOUS SUGAR BABY”. Walker’s largest project to date, The Marvelous Sugar Baby is a sculptor of an African American woman who has a sphynx body. The main inspiration for this piece was the caricature of the “Mammy. An overweight dark-skinned woman who was completely devoted to her white family. There are several examples of Mammys in pop culture: Aunt Jemima and more recently the titular character from the movie Ma. Within her work, Walker challenges these stereotypes as well as acknowledges the labor endured by thousands of slaves who worked for the benefit of others.

Within the complex nature of artistry, it is not uncommon for artists to face controversies. Not everyone has been comfortable with how graphic Walker’s art can be. Using violence and even certain racial stereotypes to express herself has left some wondering if there is a limit to how far one might go. Walker’s work has been called shameless and divisive. There was much outrage after Walker debuted her piece “THE MORAL ARC OF HISTORY IDEALLY BENDS TOWARDS JUSTICE BUT JUST AS SOON AS NOT CURVES BACK AROUND TOWARD BARBARISM, SADISM, AND UNRESTRAINED CHAOS” in the reference room of Newark public library in Newark, New Jersey. Many were unsettled by the nature of the art piece as it depicts a fiery scene, America is burning, and President Barack Obama sits in the painting behind a fiery cross as a black woman is assaulted by white men. Similar to much of Walker’s previous works, she is not afraid to express herself. Eventually, the art piece was covered up after complaints from the staff came to a boiling point. Walker has never let criticism of her affect her art in any way she has remained firm in her beliefs. As Walker had said herself “Dealing with the race you’re already entering the terrain of too much,” she explains, “and when you add gender to that because violence is implicit in each, the viewer might feel overwhelmed.” Add to this the “too-muchness”. Walker recognizes much of the criticism aimed at her and views it as a part of the process, portraying racial and gender themes will always make others uncomfortable and that uneasiness will always lead to apprehensiveness in engaging with art.


Walker remains one of the greatest contemporary artists regardless of criticism, Walker has left a distinct mark within this medium. Her shadows and silhouette tell a story of dark history but begin a dialogue on how to address racial history. In Walker's words, “the silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that's also what the stereotype does”.


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