Kara Walker (1969- ) is an American artist who, as she puts it in the title of one of her works, shows us “the Peculiar Institutions as never before! All cut from black paper by the able hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and leader in her Cause”.
She uses silhouettes, cut pieces of black paper put on a white background, to make pictures. It was a common form of art in the 1800s, which she uses to make pictures about the 1800s! But instead of the safe, white middle-class pictures that silhouettes were used for back then, she makes those other pictures you never see: a white slave master running down a black girl to rape her, a white woman hanging from a tree after a slave uprising, the heads of the black people who died to keep a white woman pure, black girls giving head and so on.
Starting out with things like paper doll books meant for girls, she creates pictures of the sex and violence of the dark and sick history of race in America.
Many of us have certain pictures in our heads of the history of race in America: slave ships packed with black bodies, black men being sold as slaves, slaves working in the fields, black bodies hanging from trees and so on. But beyond that there are other pictures that we never see and those are the pictures that Walker creates.
Her blacks look like minstrel show stereotypes. She shows what sick things followed from seeing blacks as unseriously human as that.
Her work has been shown in top art museums, like the Guggenheim, Whitney and Modern Museum of Art in New York. In 1997 she won a MacArthur fellowship, one of those genius awards, the youngest person ever to get one. Her work once made the cover of the New Yorker. It seems she does not make white liberals uncomfortable with their own racism.
Sometimes, in fact, her pictures show the old days the way whites would like to imagine them: like half-naked black women with white men asking them for sex – the Jezebel stereotype, black women as sex animals.
Her pictures seem simple, yet the more you look the more you see: a knife held behind the back, a small white man in the hand of a black woman, a lantern held by a black boy hung from a tree – the boy is a lawn jockey, it turns out.
A lot of what I was wanting to do in my work and what I have been doing has been about the unexpected … that unexpected situation of wanting to be the heroine and yet wanting to kill the heroine at the same time.
She says that maybe her pictures look like they are about slave days of long ago, but for her they are a way to find out who she is and where she fits into the now of American history.