Creating Melodramas in Silhouettes: Kara Walker

Andréa Fernandes

(This post was a week in the making, due to the overabundance of articles, reviews, and critiques on Walker and her art.)

The American artist Kara Walker had achieved "both notoriety and acclaim in the art world while still in her twenties." Her art—much of which would be considered "not safe for work"—usually sells at prices between $30,000 and $80,000, despite (or perhaps because of) the ire and controversy it causes. Still only 40 years old, Walker is considered one of the most "prominent," "controversial," "provocative," and "prolific" American artists alive today.

1. Kara Walker and her family moved from California to Stone Mountain, GA, (the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan) when she was 13. Walker suddenly "became black in more senses than just the kind of multicultural acceptance" in California. "Blackness became a very loaded subject," a subject now reflected in Walker's art. Her artwork addresses racism, sexuality, stereotypes, and violence, resulting in images that have been described as "tableaux that Toni Morrison might construct if possessed by Hieronymous Bosch."

2. When a show of German Expressionist and Neo-Expressionist art arrived in Atlanta in the mid- or late-1980s, Walker found her calling. It seemed to her that "They hate themselves, they hate the world, and they hate painting." The paintings were "fraught with urgency and rage, and somewhere underneath all of that, a kind of—it can't be called love—passion." She thought to herself, "That's what I want to do."

3. Walker, who earned degrees from Atlanta College of Art (BFA) and Rhode Island School of Design (MFA), once received an assignment to complete 100 drawings in one sitting. She has maintained the practice every since. According to Walker, "sometimes the first 75 are the dumbest, most idiotic, nondrawing, moronic stuff. You have to find a rhythm."

4. In art school, Walker switched from working with paint to X-Acto knives, which she uses to create 19th-century-esque silhouettes. To Walker, "There's a sweet violence in the act of cutting, of accepting and rejecting cultural stereotypes." She hasn't restricted herself to her favored medium, though "“ she has also used drawing, painting, light projections, writing, shadow puppetry, and film animation for her exhibits.

5. The reactions to Walker's art hit both extremes of the spectrum. At age 28, she became one of the youngest people to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. She was named one of TIME magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2007, one of GLAMOUR magazine's Women of the Year in 2008, a 2008 USA Fellow, and one of 20 "remarkable visionaries" on Oprah's "first-ever power list" in 2009. She has also received an honorary doctorate from California College of the Arts. But prominent African-American artist Betye Saar once launched a massive letter-writing campaign against Walker, calling her work "sexist and derogatory" and Walker herself "young and foolish." Other African-American artists have "deplored her use of racist caricatures."

6. In the end, those opposite reactions might be just what Walker expects. Her artistic goal is "to make the viewer gasp and laugh at the same time"¦ to provoke the audience in the most enjoyable way possible." Walker views her art as "a kind of melodrama, producing a certain giddiness that entertains but also empowers." She has also explained that her artwork is "intended to function like Harlequin romance novels, which veil themselves in history and encourage women to participate in stories that are not in their best interests."

A larger version of Walker's 2001 "Trilogy" is available here. Fans should check out Walker's work at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., the Barbara Krakow Gallery, the Walker Art Center, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the online sites for past exhibitions at the Walker Art Center, the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, and the Hammer Museum; Walker's appearance on Art:21 on PBS; and the Modern Blog's posts on the installation and removal of a Walker exhibition. "Feel Art Again" usually appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists. Or you can head to our Facebook page, where you can do everything in one place.