Kara Walker’s work is steeped in the subject of race. Her precise and often exaggerated drawings of facial features, body shapes, and costume use line and form to signify the ethnicity of her subjects and comment on the way race is used to define us. Her use of the 18th-century form of the silhouette is both an ironic and complex way to address these issues, since the paper Walker uses to cut out most of the images for her wall murals is black. This material eliminates the need for her to create skin tones and effectively renders all of her figures “black.” For these pieces, as well as her watercolors and drawings, the racial status assigned to her characters is visible through stereotype and caricature. (See Humor.) For Walker, using the silhouette came from, in part, her thinking about what it means for groups of people to define themselves through images. This is a personal interest of the artist, who says that making artwork about race translates into intimate issues about identity.
Examples of Work
Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk? 1997
watercolor, colored pencil, 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
Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions 2004
16mm film and video transferred to DVD, black and white, silent; 8:49 min.
Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Clinton and Della Walker Acquisition Fund, 2004
Sample Discussion Questions
- Describe the different characters you see in Testimony. What do they look like? What are they wearing?
- Since their skin tone is made uniform by the black paper used to create them, how can you tell if they are black or white?
- What is your response to these images?
- On page 19 of Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee or Chocolate in Your Milk? the text reads "What you want negative images of white people positive images of blacks." What do positive images of black people look like?
- What do negative images of white people look like? And vice versa for both groups?
- How does Kara Walker use stereotypes?
- How does her work confront and challenge your ideas about race?
“I knew that if I was going to make work that had to deal with race issues, they were going to be full of contradictions. Because I always felt that it's really a love affair that we've got going in this country, a love affair with the idea of it [race issues], with the notion of major conflict that needs to be overcome and maybe a fear of what happens when that thing is overcome— And, of course, these issues also translate into [the] very personal: Who am I beyond this skin I'm in?” 1
“Blackness became a very loaded subject, a very loaded thing to be—all about forbidden passions and desires, and all about a history that’s still living, very present…the shame of the South and the shame of the South’s past; its legacy and its contemporary troubles." 2
“I'm not really about blackness, per se, but about blackness and whiteness, and what they mean and how they interact with one another and what power is all about.” 3
“I’m reducing things down a lot, but I’m also characterizing everything and everyone as a black thing, and it comes from a way of viewing the world, looking for blackness, in its good and nefarious forms.” 4
1 "Conversations with Contemporary Artists" (New York: Museum of Modern Art 1999) http://www.moma.org/onlineprojects/conversations/kw_f.html.
4Kara Walker in Tommy Lot, “Kara Walker Speaks: A Public Conversation on Racism, Art, and Politics.” Black Renaissance 3, no. 1 (October 31, 2000).