Kara Walker describes her work as both visual and literary. Literature such as southern romance novels, historical fiction, slave narratives, and contemporary novels influence the artist's practice of storytelling, while some texts are directly referenced in her pieces. Like a novelist, Walker employs characters, setting and action to convey a story. These narratives are not always linear, however, and don’t necessarily include a clear plot line. In the artist’s words, “There is always a beginning and there’s never a conclusion.” Walker is interested in the stories we tell about ourselves, and specifically, a desire for a narrative about “African America” that engages the past, present, and future.
Examples of Work
The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven 1995
cut paper on wall
15 X 35 ft. (4.6 X 10.7 m)
Collection Jeffrey Deitch, New York
Slavery!Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Slavery or “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 Harris Norton, Santa Monica, California
16mm film and video transferred to DVD, black and white, sound; 15:57 min.
Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Justin Smith Purchase Fund 2006
“I don’t know how much I believe in redemptive stories, even though people want them and strive for them. They’re satisfied with stories of triumph over evil, but then triumph is a dead end. Triumph never sits still. Life goes on. People forget and make mistakes. Heroes are not completely pure, and villains aren’t purely evil. I’m interested in the continuity of conflict, the creation of racist narratives, or nationalist narratives, or whatever narratives people use to construct a group identity and to keep themselves whole—such activity has a darker side to it, since it allows people to lash out at whoever’s not in the group. That’s a contact thread that flummoxes me.” 1
“There was an earlier moment, once upon a time before this work was realized, that the idea of the historical romance fascinated me. Mainly because it is a quasi-literary form which is geared toward women and which uses history as a foil for self-deception and simple seduction.” 2
1 Kara Walker, from David D’Arcy, “The Eye of the Storm,” Modern Painters (April 2006): 59.
2 Kara Walker in Tommy Lott, “Kara Walker Speaks: A Public Conversation on Racism, Art, and Politics.” Black Renaissance 3, no. 1 (October 31, 2000).