The Genius of Kara Walker

Madison Sings, Contributing Writer

New York-based artist Kara Walker is best known for her inventive representations of race, gender, and identity. To portray her message, Walker primarily uses silhouettes and cut-outs instead of traditional paint on canvas. Her work seeks to evoke a different response from every viewer and has been called both “revolting” and “ingenious.”

Because she uses only black and white silhouettes, Walker must bring emotion to her pieces without color or expression. To do this, she uses gesture. Walker’s work has a movement that is unreachable with standard mediums. She uses the entire room as her canvas and manages to create a story that challenges society’s definitions of identity and individuality. She has been a prominent name in contemporary art since her 1994 debut and continues to amaze viewers and critics alike with every piece.

The unique shape of her work makes it incredibly recognizable and powerful. An element often found in her large-scale pieces is the disorganization of aggressors and victims, meant to show the universal shame in degradation and violence. This leaves a lasting effect on the viewer, as does her use of gory imagery. Walker’s work in silhouettes somehow gracefully walks the line between powerful and sickening. Some of her pieces include representations of death and pain, both of which leave viewers feeling shocked and aghast.

Despite the fact that silhouettes are Walker’s most iconic medium, she also dabbles in watercolor and gouache, an opaque watercolor paint. However, no matter what medium she uses, Walker’s work always packs a punch. A consistent theme in most of her work is the tragedy of slavery. Walker often depicts scenes of slavery in the Antebellum era that demonstrate the desperate reality for slaves on plantations. Walker certainly pushes the boundaries of what art depicting slavery commonly shows.

At age 47, Walker has numerous achievements under her belt. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship. Her work has been featured in several notable museums and public collections, such as the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo, and the Tate Modern.

When walking through a Kara Walker exhibit, the viewer is almost overpowered with the surrounding chaos – a fitting metaphor for the time period her work is modeled after. Her work emphasizes the brutality of America’s past and yet is still a relevant portrayal of current society.