Artist Appreciation: Kara Walker

" A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby"

” A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby”

I was recently exposed to the work of artist Kara Walker thanks to my Art History professor. In my Art History class, we watched an Art21 Episode where Walker talked about her powerful work and what motivated her to begin creating it.

You may have seen Walker’s work without knowing it. She is most famous for her antebellum silhouettes made from cut-paper. Walker has also created these silhouettes using animation, steel, video projections, sketches and watercolors among other mediums.

"Darkytown Rebellion"

“Darkytown Rebellion”

Kara Walker’s work is so powerful it can speak for itself. She tells a story where “good and evil” is not so much a war that is fought and won, but a war that is exploited and examined. Walker’s silhouettes are almost life-size caricatures that tell the stories of slavery and the antebellum South. The broken-down quality of the human form we see in silhouettes fits with the humanity that is lost with black stereotypes. Walker says of her work, “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that’s also what the stereotype does.”

"Rise Up Ye Mighty Race"

“Rise Up Ye Mighty Race”

Each of Walker’s pieces are steeped in cultural, historical, and literary references. In her Art21 video, Walker says she always had her nose buried in a book. She was ravenous to absorb all the information she could, and encourages others to become the same way. Walker says that it was hard for her to find role models as a young girl even reading the classic literature she was reading. She said something that really resonated with me: Walker talked about scarce female heroines in the books she read. She finally found a role model in Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind. Then, Walker realized Scarlett O’Hara was not a strong female character, she was a product of racism, an ignorant and elitist white female character who was disgusted by the black people of the South. This is what motivated Kara Walker to start telling these Southern stories through her art.

Walker's Pop Up Story Book

Walker’s Pop Up Story Book

Here is the pop-up book Walker constructed by hand.

One of the most gripping of her silhouettes, made for an exhibition in Brazil, shows a slave woman birthing a child and a slave master trying to pull it out of her.

"Burning African Village with Play House and Lynch Scene"

“Burning African Village with Play House and Lynch Scene”

Walker’s work continues to move her viewers because it is about a war that continues still, a racial one. However, like any successful art, Walker’s pieces examine more than one issue. Walker’s work addresses all kinds of power struggles, all kinds of oppression: social, political, emotional, racial, sexual, etc.

In her most recent installation, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” Walker has created a Sugar Sphinx with the head of the Mammy caricature. The monument is one to the mistreatment and misrepresentation of black women, and a monument to the violence of slavery. The exhibit is also meant to recognize Haitian and Dominican women for their labor over our sugar. The enormous Sugar Sphinx is accompanied by small figurines made of molasses. The piece was made site-specifically for a now defunct Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. Once the exhibit commences on July 6, the factory will be paved over to make apartment complexes.

"A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby"

“A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby”

Kara Walker says the power of the piece comes from “upsetting expectations, one after the other.” Walker made her pieces after immense research on the world of sugar. One woman wrote after visiting, “I didn’t know that the process of refining sugar is to turn it from brown to white. Thanks Kara.”

This statue has been controversial. I think one of the best summations of this installation and Kara Walker’s brilliant work comes from Bill Gaskins, an art professor at Cornell University. Gaskins says of the work, “One of the things that people forget is that art at its best is much more of a reflection of the viewer than it is of the maker. All of the sweetness and the bitterness of the response to this work is what makes it art.”

Walker’s current exhibition seems to show she is still committed to learning and educating. This statue is large and overwhelming, just like the stereotypes it confronts. Addressing themes like race, representation, and sexuality on such a large scale is both brave and masterful. Walker has created something that is glaring at the viewer; she has made something we cannot ignore.

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