Kara Walker: Using The Horrors Of The Past To Awaken The Present

Kara Walker’s art exhibits the truths of contemporary racism and misogyny while using images of a violent antebellum reality.

Jul 10, 2020By Zoe Mann, BA Art History
kara walker brooklyn studio
Kara Walker in her studio in Brooklyn, The Guardian


Kara Walker’s art depicts characters from a not-too-distant time, but she doesn’t believe her goal is historically motivated. “I’m not an actual historian,” she says while promoting an exhibition of her Fons Americanus. “I’m an unreliable narrator.” Even though Walker depicts characters from the 19th century, the same pain and discrimination still continue to exist into the 21st. 


Kara Walker’s Artistically Charged Beginnings

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Detail of Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something) by Kara Walker, The Paris Review


Kara Walker was born in 1969 in Stockton, California. The daughter of artist Larry Walker, Kara has fond memories in her father’s studio and watching him create.


When Walker was 13, her family moved to Atlanta. “I know I was having nightmares about moving to the south,” she reminisces. “The south was already a place loaded with mythology but also a reality of viciousness.” Walker’s experiences growing up in Georgia and learning the horrors of discrimination is a theme that appears throughout her work.


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Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart by Kara Walker, 1994, MoMA


Walker received her B.F.A in 1991 from the Atlanta College of Art. Three years later, she received her M.F.A from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1994, she debuted her work at the Drawing Center in New York with Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. This large-scale silhouette installation put Walker on the map.

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Kara Walker’s influences are artists Lorna Simpson and Adrian Piper. Lorna Simpson is a photographer. She depicts sexual, political, and other taboo subjects. Adrian Piper is a multimedia artist and philosopher. She creates work about her experience as a white-passing black woman. 


The Visibility Of The Silhouette

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African/American by Kara Walker, 1998, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge


Silhouettes were a popular artistic medium in the 18th and 19th centuries. Usually used as personal mementos, silhouettes show the outline of a profile. Kara Walker’s art projects are almost always in silhouettes and usually shown in-the-round by way of the cyclorama. One of her works in this style is Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994).


Walker cuts out silhouettes from black paper. The installation exhibits stories of sexually charged abuse towards black slaves in the antebellum south. Inspired by Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Walker wanted to explore inequalities during the 19th century. America abolishing slavery did not end discrimination. Walker wants the viewer to see the connection between the 19th century and today. 


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Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On) by Kara Walker, 2000, Gray Magazine


In 2000, Walker added a light projection to her arrangement of silhouettes. An example is her work exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum, Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On). Projected are trees under red skies that ominously spill onto the gallery ceiling. The trees merge with large windows with the panes resembling jail cell bars. The projections open the door to the viewer. As they walk into space, their shadows appear on the wall alongside the characters, bringing the viewer closer to the action and a part of its history.


Walker depicts black slaves fighting against the very idea of servitude. On one wall, a woman disembowels someone with a soup ladle. On the other, a young black girl carries a head on a spike. Another woman runs with a noose still tied around her neck. 


Walker’s use of silhouettes allows her to exhibit more violent truth because silhouettes do not show facial expressions. Racism is a topic most white Americans are afraid to discuss and admit. Walker wants viewers uncomfortable with the subject to think about why racism is challenging for them to confront.


 Silhouettes In Movement

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…calling to me from the angry surface of some grey and threatening sea, I was transported. by Kara Walker, 2007, The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles


In the early 2000s, Walker’s style evolved. Her silhouettes began to move, breathing more life into her work. 


In 2004, Walker created Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions. Filmed on 16mm, Walker tells the story of the relationship between slaves and their masters while using shadow puppets and title cards. Walker uses bright colors to illuminate the dark subject of the film, a method that follows her throughout her other films.


In 2007, Walker created her …calling to me from the angry surface of some grey and threatening sea, I was transported.  The film focuses on American slavery and the juxtaposition with the genocide in Darfur in 2003. Walker explores the loss of innocent black lives in America throughout the 17th and 19th centuries and in our contemporary world. 


The Power Of Sculpture

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A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby by Kara Walker, 2014, former Domino Sugar factory, Brooklyn


In 2014, Walker switched gears on a project much larger in scale. She created her first large sculpture, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous 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. A sphinx with stereotypical depictions of a black woman, Aunt Jemima head scarf, and made entirely out of sugar. Around her are sculptures of boys made of molasses. As the exhibition ran, which was during the summer, the molasses would melt, becoming one with the factory floor.


molasses boy kara walker
A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby by Kara Walker, 2014, former Domino Sugar factory, Brooklyn


Slaves picked the sugar cane, which created subtleties or sugar sculptures. White nobility were the only ones allowed to eat these subtleties, and they often took the shape of royal figures. 


Walker was commissioned to create a sculpture for the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, New York. The abandoned factory was still littered with molasses with piles on the floor and falling from the ceiling vaults. To Walker, the leftover molasses is the factory’s history still clinging to space. As time goes on, the past fades, and it always leaves a reminder.


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Fons Americanus by Kara Walker, 2019, Tate


In 2019, Walker created her Fons Americanus. A 43-foot fountain made from wood, cork, metal, acrylic, and cement exhibited at the Tate Modern in London. This incredible sculpture depicts the travel of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to the New World.


While analyzing the Victoria Memorial Monument in front of Buckingham Palace, Walker questioned its relevance. “The larger they are, in fact, the more they sink into the background,” she remarks as she passes the structure. The Victoria Memorial Monument now represents the power of the British monarchy. However, the British gained their power through violence, greed, and colonization. People seem to forget, and when they see the Victoria Monument now, they only see the power and not the method. 


Kara Walker’s Art Is A Presentation Of History

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Detail of Fons Americanus by Kara Walker, 2019, Tate


Kara Walker’s art, according to Walker herself, is “consumed by history” rather than trying to solve problems carried by the passage of time. “…looking forward without any kind of deep, historical feeling of connectedness, it’s no good…” She explains while promoting A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. To Walker, understanding and being fearless about the past is vital to progression. Art is a way to educate and inspire, and Walker continues to inspire with every work. 


Author Image

By Zoe MannBA Art HistoryZoë is a graduate student living in Los Angeles studying screenwriting. Originally from New York, she received her B.A. in Art History from Pace University. She has worked in art galleries in Manhattan and the Art Institute of Chicago. In her free time, she loves researching for her historical fiction projects and playing with her cat, Harrison.