The African-American artist, Kara Walker, has found in conceptual art, a means of reflection for everyone who contemplates her works, whether her well-known silhouettes or her sculptures. The strong and claiming message that her creations hide has generated controversy although it has also caused the artist to gain the respect of the art world.
Kara Walker was born in Stockton (California) in 1969. She is the daughter of Larry Walker, artist and painter, and Gwendolyne Walker, administrative assistant. She grew up watching her father spend long hours in his garage studio painting, which encouraged Walker to find an unwavering passion for art.
At a very early age, she moved with her family to Stone Mountain (Georgia) where she will live as the racial issue generates conflict because of the city’s history with the Ku Klux Klan, as it is the place where it emerged. There, she lived during her adolescence, racial and sexist discrimination.
She studied at Atlanta College of Art and later entered the Rhode Island School of Design where she graduated in 1994. Years later, she will teach visual arts at Columbia University. In addition, she was one of the youngest women – she was 28 – to receive the MacArthur fellowship award, a controversial event – at the time – for being so young and that her creations were more popular within the white community. She was also included in Time magazine’s 2007 list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Kara Walker’s artwork is influenced by Adrian Piper’s vision of identity. Surrealism and pop art -by Andy Warhool- are other movements that influence the artist’s style, since in her creations she combines facts and fiction completed with an eloquent imagination, besides being based on the traditions of narration.
One of the most characteristic features of her works is the use of paper silhouettes -the size of a wall- to build the scenes she represents. In such a way, that through this resource she creates shadows that stage a powerful metaphor of racial stereotypes. In addition, the silhouettes play with the viewer’s vision, since they are placed with the aim of making it difficult to determine which parts of the body belong to which figures, or which are in front and behind. These resources give the works an ambiguity that forces us to question what we know and see, building an enigmatic atmosphere – usually set in the American Civil War or slavery – that hides a meaning oriented to racism in the present and the social and economic inequalities that still persist in the United States.
On the other hand, it recalls European historicist painting through the representation of moments based on history, literature or the bible, adapting it to the contemporary world and creating a dialogue of common points between the problems of the past and those of the present. For this reason, the long literary titles that give name to Walker’s works alert us to the relation of the historical meaning of the murals.
With all those scenes he shows, she also tests the spectator by confronting the comical, satirical or grotesque character of the figures, which dramatize more or less reprehensible elements of human behaviour, with the capacity of the spectator to establish the limit of the comical. It also generates a sour and uncomfortable sensation that invites self-critical reflection.
All these components that construct the artist’s features are brought together in the first work exhibited in New York: “Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart”. In this mural she alludes to sources such as the novel “Gone with the Wind” (1936) by Margaret Mitchel -about the American Civil War- and a passage from “The Man of the Clan” -a foundational text of the Ku Klux Klan written by Thomas Dixon Jr- which focuses on the manipulative power of the “Gone with the Wind”. It mixes delicate and seemingly innocent elements, such as the two figures in nineteenth-century costumes under the moon, representing typical fairy-tale romance, and those referring to sexual violence that can be seen on closer examination. In addition, she adorns the exhibition with fantasy details such as the woman in hoop skirts on the far left.
Another of her great creations is “The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven” (1995). Kara Walker takes the cyclorama – a wall popularized in the 19th century to generate a 360º view – to appeal to the inexorable horror of the past and the cycle of racial inequality that continues to develop in the United States. The figures are arranged in life-size and the title is linked to 19th century historicist painting and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the well-known abolitionist novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The work brings together a series of vignettes denouncing the torture, murder and assault on the enslaved population of South America.
After becoming known for the silhouettes that so characterize her artistic works, in early 2000 she began to incorporate light into her creations, experimenting with the white background of the work “Darkytown Rebellion” in which she projected light onto the ceiling of the Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc (Luxembourg). In this way, she created a psychedelic atmosphere involving visitors by reflecting their shadows inside the mural. In addition, the colour of the lights, in contrast to the black silhouettes on the white background, symbolises the present. With this novelty, Walker manages to involve the spectator by comparing the different elements that show the stereotypes and by asking questions about the evolution of history.
In 2014, she presents the most monumental work to date: “A Subtlety, or the Marvellous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”. This is a sculpture of imposing dimensions and was exhibited in a hall in Brooklyn, the former plant of the largest sugar refinery in the world. The figure’s posture is reminiscent of an Egyptian sphinx and recreates the stereotype of a “mummy” (a breeder of white families). On the other hand, small statues of young black men made of resin and molasses were placed around the white sculpture that was covered with white sugar. Kara Walker chose this location because of its historical significance, as it was a place of social, economic and racial inequality.
Kara Walker tries to fight, through her work, a hidden history. In her creations, drawing and action coexist, something with which the artist constructs a narrative that highlights the social problems that the media discourses under which American society coexists try to hide. This is one of the phrases with which she explains precisely this double face of the messages: “I am fascinated by the stories we tell, real stories become fantasies and fairy tales, tales of morality and fables.”