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Visual Arts' Kara Walker Recreates Scenes from Antebellum South through Life Sized Silhouettes

By Kristin Sterling

Kara Walker

Kara Walker infuses the 18th and 19th century art of silhouetting with a modern scale: utilizing life-size cut-outs often spanning an entire wall or room. And her subject matter -- the antebellum South, slavery and stereotypes surrounding African Americans seen through an equally contemporary intellectual lens -- is as intriguing as her methodology.

In 1994, three months after receiving her M.F.A. from the Rhode Island Institute of Design, Walker, now a full-time visual arts professor at Columbia's School of the Arts, had her debut show at the Drawing Center in SoHo. There she created a 50-foot mural depicting a southern plantation scene by pasting her large black paper cutouts on a large white wall.

More recently at the 2002 Sao Paulo Biennial, one of the largest and most prestigious international arts exhibitions, Walker represented the United States with a cyclorama, a grand scale painting in the round, 85-feet in circumference. She built the installation, entitled "Slavery! Slavery!," on site and filled it with her signature life-sized silhouettes. Like Atlanta's famed Cyclorama, Walker's installation portrays the Battle of Atlanta during the Civil War.

How does she create such vast murals and life-sized cutouts? She lays large papers on the floor and, without models or photographs, creates outlines people in white chalk. She then cuts them out and puts them directly on the wall.

"Watching Kara draw is like it must have been to watch Picasso," said Bruce W. Ferguson, dean of the School of the Arts. "She has an incredible blend of pure skill, talent and imagination, all of which make her a great artist and a great teacher. We are enormously gratified to have her here at the School of the Arts where both undergraduate an graduate students have access to her as an artist and teacher."

Walker, who won a MacArthur Foundation "genius award" at age 27, began using silhouette form in the early 1990s. While in graduate school she began combining themes of slavery, violence and sex, drawn from cultural influences that include folklore, cartoons, movies, black memorabilia, Harlequin romance novels and slave narratives.

Kara Walker created a special piece for the School of the Arts found in Dodge Hall.

Such large-scale, works catch viewers attention and often spark controversy. Upon careful inspection, viewers may realize that the silhouette is a narrative device Walker employs to mix historical facts and stereotypes of racism and sexism. Her work is particularly controversial among the previous generation of African American artists who fought for civil rights and are sometimes offended by her use of degrading characterizations.

"Throughout her career, Kara has challenged and changed the way we look at and understand American history," said Thelma Golden, chief curator at the Studio Museum, which is currently exhibiting one of Walker's installations. "Her work is provocative and emotionally wrenching, yet overwhelmingly beautiful and intellectually compelling."

"The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that's also what the stereotype does," Walker explained in the catalogue for her solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "So I saw the silhouette and stereotype as linked. Of course, while the stereotype, or the emblem, can communicate with a lot of people, and a lot of people can understand it, the other side is that it also reduces differences, reduces diversity to that stereotype."

Another way Walker communicates with her viewers is by bringing them into the story. In "American Primatives," last fall at the Brent Sikkema Gallery in Chelsea, and in part of the travelling exhibition "Narratives of a Negress" -- on display this spring at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College -- Walker set up colored-light projectors that cast colorful landscape designs over the cutouts on the wall. As viewers moved around the installation and crossed in front of the projectors, their shadows were also cast on the wall, joining the scenes.

"Her charged and visceral imagery not only brings to light troubling episodes from the history of black and white relations in America, but also highlights the problems of racism, sexism and abuse that continue into the present," said Ian Berry, curator of the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College.

An installation from "Narratives of a Negress" is on exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem through September 28. The exhibition, organized by the Tang Teaching Museum and Williams College Museum of Art, spans her career and will travel to Williams College in Williamstown, Mass, through December 5.

Walker's work has been on exhibition around the world, including group shows such as: "Moving Pictures," Guggenheim Museum, New York; "La Belle et La Bete," Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; "Conceal/Reveal," SITE Santa Fe, an exhibition curated by Dean Ferguson; "New Histories," Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston; "Whitney Biennial," Whitney Museum of Art, New York; "Global Vision: New Art from the 90s," Deste Foundation, Athens; "Secret Victorians, Contemporary Artists and a 19th-Century Vision," Hayward Gallery for the Arts Council of England, London.

Among her solo shows are: "For the Benefit of all the Races," Kunstverein Hannover, Germany, 2002; "Why I like White Boys," Centre d'Arte Contemporain , Geneva Switzerland, 2000; California College of Arts and Crafts, and Oliver Art Center, Oakland, 1999; Wooster Gardens/Brent Sikkema, New York, 1998, 1996, 1995; Henry Art Gallery, Seattle; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 1997.

Kara Walker: Excavated from the Black Heart of a Negress is on exhibition through September 28 at the Studio Museum of Harlem, 144 W. 125th Street, between Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. and Lenox Avenue.

Published: Sep 23, 2003
Last modified: Sep 23, 2003

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