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A Cheat Sheet on Kara Walker
Walker is so much more than the woman with the slavery cutouts.
Fempire 22 Nov 2018

If you only know one American artist who’s a woman of color, it’s probably Kara Walker. (You should also go educate yourself ASAP, but that’s another article).
She’s one of the most famous and successful African American woman artist, with works hanging in the MoMA and Guggenheim and a teaching post at Columbia University, but also one of the most controversial. Best known for her black-and-white cutouts of extremely disturbing images of slavery-era America, Kara Walker has a knack for creating images that hit us where it hurts the most.
Artist Kara Walker attends The Museum of Modern Art Party In The Garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, NY on June 2, 1015. (Photo by Stephen Smith) *** Please Use Credit from Credit Field ***
Whether you love her or dislike her, there’s no denying that her work drags up the most horrifying moments of the country’s past—and present. The fact that her imagery still inspires such an emotional reaction means that the wounds are far from healed. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
But Walker is so much more than the woman with the slavery cutouts. Let’s dig into the nitty-gritty of Kara Walker’s world.

1) She knew she was an artist when she was 2 years old.

Sitting on her painter father’s lap as he drew in his studio in Stockton, California, Kara decided she wanted to do that, too. Then she made it happen in a huge way. Ladies, take notes.

2) She had her first brush with racism when she moved cross-country from California to the Deep South.

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Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994)
A decade after the Civil Rights Movement generation, Kara’s early childhood took place in a sunny, multicultural suburb where racial discrimination was something you learned about in history class, not something you ran into on the playground. All that changed when her father took a job in Atlanta, Georgia. On the opposite side of the continent, the Klu Klux Klan was still thriving. Kids at her new high school even called Kara racial slurs.
Still, it wasn’t until she was in her Masters program at Rhode Island School of Design, arguably the most prestigious art school in the country, that she started to address race in her art practice. She thought it would be too obvious a topic for her to take on.
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Kara Walker, Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) (2005).

Turns out Kara Walker is not only an artist and a gentleman, but also a scholar. After teaching for years at Rutgers University and Columbia University (an Ivy League, no less), in May of this year, she was one of 27 new members of the American Philosophical Society. She’s in good company—George Washington, Sandra Day O’Connor, Albert Einstein and Toni Morrison ring any bells? On the other hand, she was the only new African American member elected this year. Cue suspicious side eye.
karawalker-subtlety-04
Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014). Installed in the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC from May to July 2014.

4) She won the MacArthur “Genius Grant” when she was only 28.

This makes her the second-youngest person ever to win this super prestigious award (the youngest was David Stuart, an archeologist who studied the Mayan civilization).
Not sure about you, but my goals for age 28 include: getting my own phone plan, not becoming part of the 27 club, mastering the sassy half-pony look and being able to afford all the almond butter I want. Not being nationally recognized as a certified genius.
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Casually chillin’ with Donald Glover at the Met. Caption: “Hello #donaldglover aka GENIUS.” Oh, the irony.

5) She has some haters, and not it’s not who you would expect.

Many black American women have spoken out against her work, including, most famously, artist Betye Saar. In the 1999 PBS series I’ll Make Me a World, she said she “felt the work of Kara Walker was sort of revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves, particularly women and children; that it was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment.” Ouch.
Another artist, Howardena Pindell, was quoted at the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale saying: “She has said things such as ‘All black people in America want to be slaves a little bit.’…Walker consciously or unconsciously seems to be catering to the bestial fantasies about blacks created by white supremacy and racism.”
There’s no doubt that the images artists create shape public consciousness, leading many to argue that artists like Walker would do better to create images of the “after” of racial liberation, not dwelling on disturbing caricatures of the “before.”
walker christ entry
As artist Shinique Smith perfectly described it, the controversy boils down to one central question: “Who owns black pain?”
Of course, Walker has her fans, too—artists, critics and public. Journalist Antwaun Sargent examines and ultimately absolves Walker’s work in an excellent article for VICE, and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. pointed out that people who condemn Walker’s work basically don’t get post-modernism. Her grotesque images are not to be confused with a realistic portrayal, he argued. “That is the difference between the racist original and the post-modern, signifying, anti-racist parody that characterizes this genre of artistic expression.”
emancipation walker
Kara Walker, The Emancipation Approximation (1999-2000).
Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz are also known Walker supporters, although of course, their support just goes to support her critics’ argument that her work appeases the White establishment.
Whichever side you’re on, you won’t be able to pass by Walker’s work without being totally shocked—and she knows it. “I don’t make subtle work,” she told Sargent.
Oh, and bonus fact: her daughter is an artist, too! 

Text by Katya Lopatko
Photos via Wikipedia, MoMA, Hyperallergic via Kara Walker,
@kara_walker_official, Carnegie Museum of Art

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