Despite the serious subject matter of slavery, power, and racism, Kara Walker employs a sense of humor in her work that ranges from the cynical and sarcastic to “toilet” humor laughs at bodily functions and sexuality. She uses stereotypes and caricatures—whether slave, master, black, white, male, or female—and exaggerates physical features to emphasize their race and often their position of power. Cartoonists and political commentators employ similar tools to allow us to giggle at current events and politicians even when the subject matter is serious. By poking fun at our constructions of race and character, power, and history, Walker presents slavery as an absurd theater of eroticized violence and self-deprecating behavior, and she dares to laugh at authority, be it the slave master or the whole of official history.
The impulse to find these images funny comes from the deep sense of discomfort they cause. Walker’s amusements intersect with shame when one realizes one is laughing at suffering. In this way, Walker navigates the limits of humor and challenges the viewer’s sense of what is comical.
Examples of Work
Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk? 1997
watercolor, colored pencils, and graphite on paper, 66 sheets
64 sheets: 11 5/8 x 8 3/16 in. (29.5 x 20.8 cm) each
2 sheets: 8 3/16 x 11 5/8 in. (20.8 x 29.5 cm) each
Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Justin Smith Purchase Fund, 1998
Slavery!Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque South Slavery of “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life)” See the Peculiar Institution as never before! All cut from black paper by the able hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker an Emancipated Negress and leader of her Cause 1997
cut paper on wall
12 x 85 ft. (3.7 x 25.9 m)
Collections of Peter Norton and Eileen Norton, Santa Monica, California
Sample Discussion Questions
- Describe the physical characteristics of the people in these images. Do you see them as stereotypes? Stereotypes of what?
- Do you think that the use of stereotypes and caricatures is appropriate? In what context?
- Do you find any part of Kara Walker’s work humorous? Sarcastic? Why or why not?
- Is making fun of culturally, racially, or socially disempowered groups funny?
- How have the politics of “political correctness” shaped ideas about humor?
- Are there ethical limits to the use of humor?
"I have a funny problem with humor, I guess, because I don't consider it fun. I remember cartoons on TV that were old, pre–Mickey Mouse cartoons. These mysterious black-faced mice. I saw new prints of old Bull Durham ads with these coon scenes, genre scenes, sitting on the porch with all the animals . . . Whatever else they might be, they were also intended to be hilariously funny. The black person was the butt of all kinds of jokes from Vaudeville to Hollywood on up. Where are we now? I think we've stopped being funny." —Kara Walker 1
“In the end, Walker might very well be a humanist in disguise. Because she knows that humor appeals more to intellect than to the emotions. She uses humor as a representational strategy and as a language with its own history and participation within history.” —Philippe Vergne 2
“I didn’t want a completely passive viewer. Art means too much to me. To be able to articulate something visually is really an important thing. 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. It looks like a cartoon character, it’s a shadow, it’s a piece of paper, but it’s out of scale. It refers to your shadow, to some extent to purity, to the mirror.” —Kara Walker 3
Related words and Concepts
Theater of the Absurd
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
1 Kara Walker quoted in Jerry Saltz, "Kara Walker: Ill-Will and Desire," Flash Art 29, no. 191, (November/December 1996): 82–86.
2 Philippe Vergne, “The Black Saint Is the Sinner Lady," Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love (Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2007)
3 Kara Walker, Flash Art 29, 82-86.