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Kara Walker, a revolutionary artist

an essay written by Caroline Lebron

Kara Walker is a revolutionary artist who uses art to initiate important conversations regarding social issues which, in turn, actively creates a platform for those who have been marginalized. Walker encourages her viewers to engage in discussion over controversial topics that are often avoided. She has simultaneously broken the stigma over these controversial topics making her art into safe spaces allowing marginalized groups the opportunity to heal and be heard. Before Walker would become the revolutionary artist she is today, she began her humble roots in Stockton, California. She was born in 1969 into an academic family where her family's love for education followed into Walker's desire to become an artist. At the young age of three Walker dreamed of becoming an artist.

At the age of thirteen her life forever changed when her father accepted a position at Georgia State University. After accepting the position at Georgia State, Walker and her family moved to Stone Mountain, Georgia. This move to Georgia shifted the whole dynamic of her view on life as she moved from a multicultural inclusive environment to an oppressive environment. Stone Mountain was known for still holding Klu Klux Klan rallies and for its community exert of racism and sexism. Throughout her career Walker has been very transparent over the experiences she has had living in Stone Mountain. For instance, Walker once recalled, stating, "I was called a nigger, told I looked like a monkey, accused, I didn't know it was an accusation, of being a Yankee.”(The Art Story) Within her town Walker recalls feeling unwelcome and excluded into a culture that she personally didn’t resonate with. In order to cope with the trauma bestowed upon her, she was able to heal through going to the library, where reading books that gave a narrative of the South helped her understand her living environment.

After high school Walker attended Atlanta College of Art where she was pressured by her professors' expectations, an expectation based on double standards which were geared towards minority students, to pursue painting and printmaking. Throughout her time at Atlanta College of Art Walker focused her art on race based issues. After attending Atlanta College of Art Walker then attended graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design. During graduate school Walker focused on race based issues as well as sexual societal issues. She expressed these contemporary issues through African American history, literature, and artists. Walker used research tools to use academic sources to back up her artistic work. During her graduate school days she had many role models who influenced her work, these role models all addressed issues of race. It was during her time in graduate school where Walker began to favor Victorian middle-class portraiture and illustration, paper silhouettes. These paper silhouettes will become what Walker is most famous for today.
Post-graduate school Walker was able to find quick success with her paper silhouettes. During the 1990s Walker first introduced her desire to illustrate the history of the American South. Her silhouette piece Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred B’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart debuted in 1994. Just three months after finishing graduate school Walker's piece began to become a big success at the New York Drawing Center. Figure One shows the 50-foot region, where Walker depicts black figures dressed in 19th-century costume; these figures can be seen standing out from the white wall behind them.

The title of the piece also gives meaning to the art piece as a whole. Walker was inspired by Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel Gone with the Wind and a passage in Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s The Clansman. Walker was inspired by Dixon's interpretation of Black people in the South as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and was inspired by Mitchell’s depiction of the American Civil War. In an interview, titled “The Melodrama of Gone with the Wind” with the Art21 Walker stated, “The silhouette lends itself to avoidance of the subject, of not being able to look at it directly, yet there it is, all the time, staring you in the face. There it is, the whole world of Gone with the Wind and its legacy and the way that affects people’s everyday encounters. I went through my young adult life in Atlanta half-blind, let’s say, ignorant to some extent, because there it was. I was actually blinded by this melodrama. And the melodrama includes a kind of soft-focus view of racism.”(Art21)

Walker was inspired by the romanticized form of storytelling. In one case the piece shows two lovers happily in love. However, when you take a closer look at the entire piece you will notice graphic scenes of sex and violence. Walker describes her piece stating, “The history of America is built on this inequality. The gross, brutal manhandling of one group of people, dominant with one kind of skin color and one kind of perception of themselves, versus another group of people with a different kind of skin color and a different social standing. And the assumption would be that, well, times changed and we've moved on, but this is the underlying mythology, and we buy into it. I mean, whiteness is just as artificial a construct as blackness is.”(The Modern Met) Walker’s piece shows the intersectionality of race and sex, and how these two forces can come together to create a massive form of oppression. Three years later, at age twenty-seven, due to her success she became the youngest to become a MacArthur fellow. Her work was initially interpreted as offensive and many viewers were divided on their interpretation of her piece. However, today many viewers see Walker's piece as a big step in racial justice and equality.

Another piece that explores the intersectionality of race and sex can be seen through Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby debuted in 2014. Walker used the former Domino Sugar plant in Brooklyn and transformed it into a seventy feet Sphinxlike woman made out of sugar. Figure two shows the woman lying down in a sexualized position completely exposed. The woman represented a stereotypical racist “mammy”(Galerie Magazine) character. The piece was surrounded by thirteen blackamoors made with molasses-covered resin (Galerie Magazine). Walker describes her piece as a subtle way to bring a voice over topics of imperialism, slavery, and the slave trade. The slave trade that at one point traded sugar for African bodies and African bodies for sugar.

The piece was produced by Creative Time; over 130,000 people came to visit this piece. The visitors were dismayed by the piece of sugar that created a strong sweet smell in the room. At first no one thought Walker’s piece would be possible to complete, however, through a team of passionate problemsolvers her dream was able to become alive. The piece was overall extremely powerful as it paid a tribute to the unpaid sugar workers who were treated poorly. Inspired by Lorna Simpson and Adrian Piper, Waker continues to use hints of feminist ideals to help engage the meaning behind her work. Through this piece Walker has encouraged her audience to look at things that are visible within our society but often ignored. Our American history in regards to slavery, immigration, and the over sexualization of the female body are topics we often turn a blind eye to. Walker, through her art installations, creates safe spaces where viewers can have those often difficult discussions and learning experiences.

Kara Walker’s contemporary art has raised awareness around issues of privilege and oppression regarding the intersectionality of race and gender. Her work has been very controversial at one point artist Betye Saar stated, "I 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."(Barnebys Magazine) However, Walker has always defended her work knowing the power she holds by telling the stories of those who have been silenced. She responded back to Saar stating, “I have no interest in making a work that does not elicit a feeling.”(Barnebys Magazine) Walker’s work is incredibly unique as she goes beyond the social norms of art sharing work that is important, yet controversial. Her pieces have been covered and hidden, however, other opinions have not stopped her from expanding the conversation over historically gruesome topics. Due to her strength and determination to have her voice heard she has remained one of the most influential artists today.

Walker throughout her career has accomplished many successes. She was the youngest artist to receive the Genius Grant. She was named as one of the Times One Hundred Most Influential People in the World at the young age of thirty-six. Today, she continues to open the conversation regarding important issues within our society that are often overlooked. Today, she is focusing on topics over issues regarding the environment, she is determined to use environmentally-friendly materials. Walker is truly a revolutionary artist who has used art as a form of seeking racial and gender equality.

Sources :
Barnebys. “Kara Walker: 5 Facts to Know: Barnebys Magazine.”, Barnebys, 5 Aug. 2020,
Vartanian, Hrag. “What Does Kara Walker's Sugary Sphinx Tell Us?” Hyperallergic, 13 May 2016,
“Kara Walker Biography, Life & Quotes.” The Art Story,
Oh, Janet. “Kara Walker Paintings, Bio, Ideas.” The Art Story, The Art Story Foundation, 1 Apr. 2022,
“Kara Walker.” Kara Walker - Bio | The Broad,
Barnebys. “Kara Walker: 5 Facts to Know: Barnebys Magazine.”, Barnebys, 5 Aug. 2020,
“Kara Walker: Virginia's Lynch Mob and Other Works: Montclair Art Museum.” Kara Walker: Virginia's Lynch Mob and Other Works | Montclair Art Museum,
“Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.” Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth,,
“Five of the Most Groundbreaking Artworks from Kara Walker's Prolific Career.” Galerie, 4 May 2021,
Puzzles, Four Point, et al. “5 Kara Walker Artworks That Tell Historic Stories of African American Lives.” My Modern Met, 17 Mar. 2021,
“The Melodrama of ‘Gone with the Wind.’” Art21,
Puzzles, Four Point, et al. “5 Kara Walker Artworks That Tell Historic Stories of African American Lives.” My Modern Met, 17 Mar. 2021,,
Wall, D. “Transgression, Excess, and the Violence of Looking in the Art of Kara Walker.” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 33, no. 3, 2010, pp. 277–299.,
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