I wanted to make work where the viewer wouldn’t walk away; he would either giggle nervously, get pulled into history, into fiction, into something totally demeaning and possibly very beautiful. I wanted to create something that looks like you.–Kara Walker, 1996
Kara Walker is best known for her room-size tableaus of black-paper cutout silhouettes that take an irreverent, occasionally humorous, and all-around fantastical look at the underbelly of America’s obsessions with race, sex, and violence. She draws her iconography from sources as varied as the antebellum South, historical romance novels, commercial culture, and slave narratives. Through a “collusion of fact and fiction,” she creates a complex reading of history that is at once seductive and confrontational.
Walker’s charged imagery has garnered intense criticism and debate. In July 1997, an older generation of African-American artists embarked upon a letter-writing campaign in which they asked colleagues for their help “to spread awareness about the negative images produced by the young African-American artist, Kara Walker.” Questioning the validity and intent of the images as well as the reasoning behind “rewarding” Walker with a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Grant (won earlier that year), the campaign inspired accusations of censorship but also support. The debate continued in journals and at a historic symposium on the use of black stereotypes in visual culture at Harvard University in 1998. According to the artist, this series of watercolors was begun as a diaristic response to the controversy.
Walker created these drawings between August and December 1997, while she was pregnant with her first child. This body of work records her dreams, depicts the complicit and victimized human body, and presents imaginary dialogues between the artist and her most vocal critics. Sarcasm, indignation, humor, and dismissal commingle on the same page. These drawings continue the debate over representation in contemporary culture, and record a historic moment in the politics of race in this country.