Archive for the ‘artists’ Category

karawalkerKara 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”.

kwalkerShe 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.


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damali ayo

Damali ayo (1972- ) is an American artist, best known as the creator of Rent-a-Negro. She has also panhandled for reparations, the money whites should give blacks to make up for their past crimes.

She thinks her name looks better in lower-case letters, so that is how she writes it: damali ayo.

Art for her is not about making something that looks cool or pretty, but about making people think. To bring them up short and make them question what is going on. Not art for art’s sake, but art to change society for the better.

Rent-a-Negro started out as a website in 2003, became a book in 2005 and now, in 2008, is being made into a film.

Ayo does not in fact rent out any Negroes – not that white people have not asked for such a service! Instead the website is meant to make white people laugh at themselves – and then think about their strange ideas about black people! But many of them do not get it.

Ayo often finds herself being the only black person at a party and for many of her white friends she is the only black person they know.

So she becomes like a rare bird: white people want to touch her, especially her hair – sometimes they do not even ask first but just start touching! They ask her about O.J. Simpson or Katrina, as if all black people think alike, as if they only have opinions about race and not, say, the war in Iraq.

Her white friends have used her to prove how they are not racist: “Tell them, damali, how I’m not racist.” Or to talk to their racist grandmother.

Her mother told her to stop being everyone’s Rent-a-Negro. That gave ayo the idea for the website. White people should pay for the service she is providing!

She uses the word “Negro” because it is outdated, to make the point that the sort of white thinking she is talking about should be just as out of date.

As for the reparations, some whites give her money! One gave her 20 cents and then wanted a receipt! Ayo gives the money right away to the first black person who walks by. Others help her in the cause.

Ayo grew up in Washington, DC, went to Brown University and now lives in Portland, Oregon, right in the middle of Ecotopia: she very much believes in living in a more natural and earth-friendly way. She has a garden from which she gets much of her food and even medicine. She drinks rainwater and so on.

When she was little she thought Einstein and Houdini must be black because they were so cool and interesting.

One of the greatest joys in her life is her blind dog Stevie. Her former owner had left her in the woods to die, lost and alone.

She supports Barack Obama: he is by far the most honest man who has run for president in a long time.

She has not just her websites, but also a blog and a YouTube channel.

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Miguel Covarrubias (1902-1957) was a Mexican illustrator. I love his pictures! So did Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Vogue and the other top magazines of New York where his pictures appeared in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. He also did pictures for books, like those of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Pearl Buck and his own books about Bali and southern Mexico. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance.

Sometimes when you read about people from the past you wish you could go back in time and meet them. Dorothy Dandridge and Covarrubias are like that for me.

He lived mainly in Mexico City, where he grew up in the bohemian part of the city, and New York, where he became famous. But he also travelled the world. He saw San Francisco, Shanghai, Bali, Vietnam, India, Africa and Paris.

He dropped out of school at age 14 and drew maps for his father, who was a civil engineer for the government. In 1923 he left Mexico and came to New York. Vanity Fair saw his talent almost right away. He drew for them and other top magazines. They loved his caricatures of famous people.

Although he drew and painted for magazines and books, his work took on something of the style of the high art of the time. You can see something of Picasso and even Dali in his pictures. It may have looked cool then, but it looks dated now.

He knew all the best places in the city to go for drink, dance and music, many of them in Harlem. And he knew some of the most interesting people, like Eugene O’Neill, Langston Hughes and Frida Kahlo. He knew John Huston and Al Hirschfeld when they were still nobodies in New York.

In 1930 he married a dancer, Rosa Rolanda, and took her to the island of Bali for their honeymoon. They stayed there for three years! When he came back to New York he wrote and illustrated a beautiful book about the island and its people, the way it was before Australian holidaymakers took over the place.

I love his pictures of black and Balinese women. Some of them are pretty bad, but most of them are good, even wonderful. He did not draw them as if they were white women with a few things different. He drew them as if they were the only women on earth; he drew them as a man who loved how they looked, having seen them from living in Bali and New York.

Covarrubias loved to do those maps of countries with pictures showing what each part of the country is known for.

Covarrubias also did some wall pictures. You can still see some of them in Mexico City. He did one for the 1938 San Francisco world’s fair.

He died at 52 of blood poisoning. Rosa lived on and became friends with Adriana Williams, a writer. Williams drank in all of Rosa’s stories about Covarrubias and wrote books about him.

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