Introduction To Themes

“Most pieces have to do with exchanges of power, attempts to steal power away from others.” —Kara Walker 1

Kara Walker’s work is layered with images that reference history, literature, culture, and the darker aspects of human behavior. Connecting all of her work is an examination of power. The characters in her environments display power struggles of all kinds: physical, emotional, personal, racial, sexual, and historical.

Making sense of these images requires careful looking and an understanding of the references the artist makes. To facilitate this process, this section contains information about five of the Walker's key themes: Representing Race, History: Collusion of Fact and Fiction, Narrative, Desire and Shame, and Humor.

Each topic is described in a brief paragraph with related quotations by the artist, critics, curators and writers; examples of pieces in the exhibition that relate strongly to that theme; and same discussion questions. For different ways to approach the art, visit Types of Responses where you’ll find more general questions.

Use this section as a way to link Walker’s work to your curriculum, a book club discussion, or for a deeper look at the exhibition. For additional readings related to each theme, look for the color-coded tags in the Annotated Resource List.

For a more in-depth look at the subjects in Walker's work, please download the Gallery Guide (PDF), and Yasmil Raymond's "Maladies of Power: A Kara Walker Lexicon" (PDF) from the exhibition catalog Kara Walker: My Complement, My Oppressor, My Enemy, My Love available in the Walker Book Shop.

1 Kara Walker, from Sollins, Susan, Exec Producer. Art21: Art in the 21st Century. DVD, PBS Home Video Dist, 2003.

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