Desire And Shame

In the pages of Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee or Chocolate In Your Milk? (1997) Kara Walker describes America’s national pastime as “loving to hate what we hate to love.” This statement that speaks to a collective shame of being attracted to expressions, activities or ideas unfavorable to society represents a tension that plays a large part in Walker’s work.

Influenced by her own personal experience of internalized racism and sexism, Walker presents a complex exploration of desire, pleasure and shame that isn’t often discussed publicly. Viewers can feel both attracted to and repulsed by her cleanly drawn images that often combine sexuality with violence and humor. Some of the controversy around her work comes from this mixing of nudity, sexual behavior, violence, bestiality, scatology, titillation and miscegenation and other subjects that may be considered taboo with the already difficult history of slavery in America. As with the other themes in her work, these subjects are not presented with a clear moral position. Characters are not necessarily punished or rewarded for their involvement in these acts.

Examples of work

Letter from a Black Girl 1998
transfer text on wall
dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Endless Conundrum, An African Anonymous Adventuress 2001
cut paper on wall
16 ft. x 37 ft. 6 in. (4.9 x 11.4 m)
Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2002
Exhibition copy

Sample Discussion Questions

  • In the vignettes of Endless Conundrum, whose desire is Walker presenting? How can you tell? How is desire shown other works that you see?
  • Does Walker's historical depiction of women address or subvert the portrayals of women we see in popular culture?
  • Are there elements in these two works that make you uncomfortable? What are they? Why? What is your reaction?
  • In Letter from a Black Girl who do you think is the author of the letter? Who do you think it was written for?


“My works are erotically explicit, shameless. I would be happy if visitors would stand in front of my work and feel a bit ashamed—ashamed because they have…simply believed in the project of modernism.” —Kara Walker 1

“All of the bad vibes, the bad feelings, all of the nastiness, and all of the sort of vulgar associations with blackness, and the more base associations in this culture about Black Americans or Africans bubble up to the surface of my brain and spill out into this work.” —Kara Walker2

“As black paper cut outs adhered directly to the white walls of the gallery, Walker’s work is put forth in no uncertain terms. Her world is quite frankly black and white. In fact, it is shameless. The works’ refusal to acknowledge shame when dealing with issues of race and desire set within the context of slavery, allows Walker to challenge, indeed taunt, our individual and collective historical imaginations.” —Hamza Walker3

“Walker’s work is shameless three times over. In her choice of imagery, she has abandoned the historical shame surrounding slavery, the social shame surrounding stereotypes, and finally a bodily shame regarding sexual and excretory functions.” —Hamza Walker4

Related words and Concepts
cultural iconography
Josephine Baker
Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column

1 Kara Walker interview with Samuel Herzog, “Die schwartze Seele wird von der Monerne verbraucht,” Baster Zeitung, (June 9, 2001): 55. Trans. Lynn Dierks

2 Kara Walker, MOMA, Online Projects, Conversations with Contemporary Art (referring to piece “The Battle of Atlanta”)

3 Hamza Walker, “Kara Walker: Cut it Out," Journal of Contemporary African Art (Fall/Winter, 2000)
4 Ibid.

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