History Girl

Kara Walker’s art mines the past to tell a very different story.


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.”

Cut, 1998, cut paper and adhesive on wall

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.”

To understand her history lesson a little better, it helps to know about the artist’s personal story. Walker spent her early childhood in racially mixed Stockton, California, where her father, Larry, taught art at the University of the Pacific. “I was actually born with a vaguely positive worldview. There was something kind of triumphant that I didn’t know what had been accomplished” in the civil rights movement, she recalls of her childhood in the Seventies. “In some ways, I grew up declawed. Declawed and unprepared.” As she gives the subject more thought, however, certain less than idyllic recollections come to mind, such as when the Walkers, the only black family in the neighborhood, had their house egged by “local idiot teenagers.” One time, when she was about 12, she went with her choir to San Francisco to see a show. The black and Latino kids went to McDonald’s for lunch, while one white boy went to a fancy restaurant. When Walker and her friends showed up at the restaurant to pick him up, the doorman told them, “There are no niggers in there.”

The Battle of Atlanta: Being the Narrative of a Negress in the Flames of Desire—A Reconstruction, 1995 (detail), cut paper and adhesive on wall

But it was only when the family moved to Georgia when she was 13, Walker says, that “‘nigger’ sort of became a way of life.” Accustomed to hanging out with kids of all races, she initially did the same at her new school. Then, while waiting at a bus stop with some white friends one day, she was taken aback to hear them using the slur to describe other classmates—and then to remark about Walker in a creepily complimentary way: “Oh, she’s not a nigger. She’s just like us.” Says Walker, “I remember distancing myself on that day from that group.” (It bears noting that, though the mainstream media has used “the n word” instead of “nigger” since the O.J. Simpson trial, Walker appears to find such editing a naive nicety. In a public talk with New York Times art critic Roberta Smith in January, Walker boldly spoke the word and at one point noted—on the off chance that someone in the audience had been asleep—“I’ve said ‘nigger’ twice now.” Later in the month, Walker explains that she is interested both in taboos and in “how a word can not just touch a person but take a person back in time and create a connection with past uses of the word.” Because she’s known for using the word in such forums—and in her work—she adds that when she doesn’t there’s an “expectation of rage that’s left hanging there.”)

Walker went to art school in Atlanta and remained in the city for about a year afterward, becoming romantically involved with a white man. Other than to acknowledge that “my last year in Georgia was kind of psychologically eventful,” Walker skirts a question about the relationship. “I mean, this is all the stuff that comes out in therapy now, that I don’t want in W,” she says.

As a shy undergrad, Walker was a painter. “I knew I wanted to be an artist,” she says, “but I didn’t really know what it was I wanted to say.” Intrigued by what she describes as the “combination of poverty, neglect, decay and the mask of propriety” that she saw in the homes of her large extended Southern family, she homed in on the glass swans collected by a cousin and began painting huge canvases of the birds. She made another of a crane with a slit in it. “It could be a cut. It could be a vagina. Could be a vagina!” she repeats with mock shock. “I shouldn’t talk so much about these things. They’re very representative of the work of all 20-year-old women in the late 20th century. Could be a vagina, could be phallic, could be both.”

Brown Follies, 1996–97, watercolor on paper

Though she had been stung in the past by racism coming from whites, it was her indignation about a group show of black artists (in which she also participated) that helped her find her voice. “I remember being curious and perturbed by the way that African-American male artists in the show were portraying their role as protectors of women from injustices such as rape,” she says. The constant reminder of being oppressed—not just being a victim but being stereotyped as one—she explains, “was like furthering the abuse in some ways.”

Around the same time, she began questioning the medium of painting itself. “I did start to equate the picture plane of my canvases as a racist site. As a white male,” she trails off, searching for the right words, “a location of patriarchal power, or something. I guess if we come back to the question that I avoided, it was also my way of questioning my relationship to other spheres of patriarchal power in my life.”

Having decided to jettison the canvas, to “undo painting,” as she puts it, she moved north for graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design. In Atlanta she had come across paper silhouettes, which had been popular with the bourgeoisie in the 18th and 19th centuries and used as a type of mug shot for slaves. She had also experimented a bit with cutout collages of text. In Providence Walker found her footing, while asking herself questions like “Why is there a difference between a mainstream art world and a black art world? How did I conform or fail to conform to the expectations set up by these warring factions?” She came across a Sixties-era book about black artists, which included her dad. The featured work was noble, celebratory. “I don’t even know if I was being ironic, but I definitely felt like, F— everybody!” she recalls.

Soon everything came together in her paper cutouts of antebellum stock characters engaged in decidedly nonstock, uninspirational activities. As further indictment of our tendency to stereotype, the cutouts are all of the same color—most commonly black—and merely outline Walker’s figures in profile, yet viewers instantly identify them by race.

Untitled, 2001–05, one of nine collages on paper

Some critics have described her art as more about the artist’s psychology than about her ideology. Walker, wrapping her arms together for emphasis, says the personal and political “come together in points of profundity, excitement, catharsis.” Reminded of her nine-year-old daughter Octavia’s recent dissection project in school, she likens her art- to a bird of prey’s regurgitation. “You know, owls sort of swallow their food whole,” she says. “They get, like, a mouse or whatever, and it gets crushed up, but then they sort of upchuck the remainder, the stuff that isn’t useful to them, like the bones and the fur. And I thought, It’s not so much excrement, because I have a lot of excrement in my work—all this excess material that is really by-product of racism, by-product of history, by-product of me being here trying to make sense of it all—but maybe it’s something closer to the owl pellet, where you can actually kind of parse through it, you can kind of reconstruct the desiccated mouse, the desiccated event, the desiccated history.”

A few months after she graduated in 1994, Walker took part in a group show at the Drawing Center in New York. Given a whole wall to work with, she cut loose with a mural, Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War As It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, that commanded the attention of curators, dealers and artists alike. The MacArthur grant followed three years later, sparking a bitter backlash led by the then 70-year-old black artist Betye Saar, who urged a boycott of Walker’s work. Detractors tagged Walker as self-hating, which she wryly disputes: “It was sort of self-distrust.”

The campaign landed her in therapy. “I had imagined some other kind of conversation, I guess, like the real barroom brawl,” Walker says of the tumult, “rather than a sort of public dissing.” She respectfully understands Saar’s point of view, acknowledging, “my work is really abject and self-effacing sometimes. I mean, it’s big and overwrought, but it’s just paper dolls, and it’s kind of silly. I think that that might actually be a luxury that previous generations couldn’t afford.” Still, she is neither conciliatory nor laudatory of Saar’s own black power–style oeuvre when she notes that she expects more from a fellow artist: an artistic response, not censorship. (Saar declined to comment for this story.) “There were specific pieces of Betye’s that I looked at in my black arts movement re-education that I thought just didn’t do it. To be a truly conscientious artist, you have to look at what’s not working and challenge it. You riff on things. That’s what I was aiming for. And I would expect the same in kind.”

The outcry did not stand in Walker’s way. She kept to her agenda and kept largely to herself, remaining in Providence with her husband, German-born RISD jewelry professor Klaus Bürgel, and daughter. The family finally moved to New York about four years ago (she also has a place in rural Massachusetts), though she and her husband have since separated. “In a way I had been too afraid to move here,” she says. “But Providence was a little lonesome, and it was kind of hard to get in the spirit of wanting to do something. When you’re getting out here seeing shows, meeting people, it’s just very inspiring.”

She has taken the opportunity to teach at Columbia University and to curate an exhibition, “After the Deluge,” last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which, in reference to Hurricane Katrina, she selected other artists’ works as well as her own from the museum’s vast collection. “There’s an obvious hook because Kara uses an 18th-century technique, silhouettes, to make modern images,” says Gary Tinterow, the museum’s Engelhard curator in charge of 19th century, modern and contemporary art. “That seemed to resonate with the Met’s purpose to show works of art over 5,000 years.”

An installation view of Darkytown Rebellion, 2001, cut paper and projection on wall

Though Tinterow now describes Walker as “grace personified,” in the early days of their collaboration, her reticent nature made her hard to read. “I couldn’t tell if she was fully engaged in the project or not,” he says, adding that he eventually asked her if she was sure she wanted go through with it. “She said in the smallest of voices, ‘Have a show at the Met? Are you kidding?’”

In the end, he says, Walker “drilled down” to pull the exhibit together. “The show was much more reflective and thought provoking than I had anticipated,” Tinterow says. “I was amazed to see how long people stayed in the exhibition when they came. That was all due to Kara’s work on the project.”

Walker’s studio today is a bit of a shambles as she hastens to finish a video in time for the opening. “I’ve only now made something like a storyboard,” she says. “It’s like, okay, I will admit that we have to do this.” Using cut-paper puppets as in her previous two films, Walker says she’s still not entirely comfortable with video. “I don’t trust it as much as cutting something out and sticking it on the wall,” she explains. “I trust my hand. If I go into a space with a roll of paper, I can make a work, some kind of work, and feel pretty satisfied.”

For her, the hardest thing about being an artist—“the crazy-making part”—is figuring out what to make. When she’s blocked, she reads (“my own amateur black studies course”), writes and draws. Rising from her chair, she goes to a nearby table and picks up a stack of drawings, executed in watercolor on blue paper. There’s a man urinating into a bucket, his torso bound; an elegant female nude in profile; a black woman bursting a bubble with a white man’s face inside. Maintaining a practice that began as a school assignment, she does 100 drawings in a sitting. “But sometimes the first 75 are the dumbest, most idiotic, nondrawing, moronic stuff,” she explains. “You have to find a rhythm.”

After the rhythm comes the song, or perhaps more aptly in Walker’s case, the story. Her art, which resonates like a modern-day slave narrative, stands solidly in the storytelling tradition. “It’s kind of accidental,” she says, adding, “There’s a place in contemporary American culture for African-American female truth telling. To tell it like it is or to tell it like it isn’t or to tell it like you dreamed it up.”

Says Vergne, “I think Kara is saying there is no truth.”

Of course, ambiguity makes some people nervous. In Walker’s case the potshots have come from across the ideological spectrum. Some detractors have called her politically correct, others incorrect. A hint of a smile crosses Walker’s lips when she hears of the dispute, seemingly for the first time. “Yeah, somewhere in between there is a little black figure dancing around, having a laugh,” she says, then breaks into an old soft-shoe.

Images courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & CO.