Kara Elizabeth Walker (born 1969)

"[Walker's] vignettes of slavery and plantation life in the antebellum American South are often life-size and span entire walls. The Smithsonian American Art and Portrait Gallery Library, however, owns a much smaller example of Walker’s work, ... an artist’s book [called] Freedom: A fable. A curious interpretation of the wit of a Negress in troubled times, with illustrations. The book’s story, layout and images were conceived by Walker in the style of her larger-scale silhouettes. She used a combination of dainty Victorian silhouettes and the pop-up medium ... to contradict the dire situation in which [the book's] heroine finds herself." (From the Smithsonian Library's description of the work that HMA also owns.) The work at first glance appears to be a nineteenth-century children's book, but it is decidedly not. As in all Walker's work, it explores the raw intersection of race, gender and sexuality, then as now.

kara-walker sphinx.jpg

Born in 1969 in Stockton, California, Walker graduated from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and earned a Masters Degree in Art from Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. Since that time, she has created numerous installations of her life-sized silhouette cut-outs and hundreds of drawings and watercolors in more than 40 solo exhibitions.

Probably Walker's most controversial work, however, is her first public sculpture project in 2014, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, constructed at the one-time Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, NY. This abandoned molasses-covered space echoing with history inspired Walker's creation of a colossal sugar-coated sphinx. She dedicated this work "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." The sphinx itself was demolished along with the building: the vast blocks of polystyrene foam under the sugar coating were cut up and cleaned and taken away for recycling.

Walker is the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, including a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” at 28 (one of the youngest-ever recipients), a spot on Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential list in 2007, and exhibitions at some of the most respected museums in the US.  She currently lives in New York City, where she is associate professor of visual arts at Columbia University.

Works from the Museum's collection by artists who were influenced by the Harlem Renaissance movement were exhibited at HMA between February 6 and May 29, 2016 . Artists included Elizabeth CatlettRomare BeardenJacob LawrenceSharif BeyJuie Rattley III, Kara Walker and more. (Links connect to HMA blog posts about each artist.)

Walker's book was part of the exhibit Woman Made that showcased works by women artists in the Museum's permanent collection. The show opened December 17, 2016, and ran through April 23, 2017. 

Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.