The art is fierce. Raunchy, defiant, grotesque, in your face, unset- tlingly violent, racially charged, epic, fiendishly satirical. And fierce.
The woman who makes the art is not.
On a crisp winter morning in New York’s garment district, Kara Walker is sitting alone in her studio, quietly working at her desk wearing jeans and a camisole, which accentuate her willowy limbs. When a visitor enters, she self-consciously covers up with a shirt. She is soft-spoken, contemplative and reserved. When she frets that she may be revealing too much during an interview, she gets up to steep a cup of tea in the studio’s makeshift kitchen and compose her thoughts.
Any expectation that Walker would be a human incarnation of her art, a prototypical angry young black woman, quickly evaporates. But then, above all else, her work, most frequently rendered in cut-paper silhouettes that are an ironic throwback to 18th-century decorative art, is about stereotypes—their slippery appeal, their utter absurdity and their wretched oppressiveness. Like tableaux that Toni Morrison might construct if possessed by Hieronymus Bosch, Walker’s antebellum narratives depict erections larger than the black boys sprouting them, a slave woman giving birth to a fully grown master, a white boy poised to rape a black woman with a toy sword, and all manner of bodily fluids and objects coming in and out of all sorts of orifices. “I started this work with the silhouettes with the express project to make a black woman’s art,” she says. “The black woman and me, the Negress and myself. Sort of one and the same and completely separate. It’s born partly out of just the experience of my body as it’s moved through the world, and the bodies it’s come in contact with. The kind of residual racism, residual psychosis, residual misogyny of the world.”
In her relatively brief but explosive career, she has won a MacArthur “genius” award, raised the ire of elder black artists and elicited the rapture of younger ones as well as that of world-class collectors. At the age of 37, Walker is the subject of a full-scale museum survey opening February 17 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis before traveling to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The show’s loaded contents, with everything from fornication to decapitation, led the Minneapolis museum to issue a gentle warning in its catalog in anticipation of the “concerns of some viewers.” Love it or hate it, it will be one installation that you won’t casually stroll by. “It’s difficult not to be immediately drawn to Kara’s work,” says Philippe Vergne, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator. “It’s extremely seductive. You’re attracted to it, and then, as Kara has told me more than once, ‘I punch you either in the stomach or the face.’ She acts like a historian who’s telling you a history you do not want to hear.”