Techniques And Media
Kara Walker employs techniques and media ranging from painting and drawing, light projection and written text, to her signature cut-paper silhouette installations, video and performances. Use this section to explore her processes.
Art on Call Archive: Kara Walker discusses the significance of the silhouette. Please click play to hear the audio.
Unless otherwise indicated, all artworks and quotations by Kara Walker © the artist, courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.
cut paper on wall
88 x 54 in. (2223.5 x 137.2 cm)
Collection Donna and Cargill MacMillan
Kara Walker is perhaps best known for her cut-paper silhouettes. She began working with these images around 1993 while a graduate student at Rhode Island School of Design. She mentions being drawn to early American silhouettes as she explored an interest in kitsch.1
The history of paper-cut portraits dates back to the court of Catherine de Medici in the late 16th century in France. This decorative practice, which grew increasingly popular during the second half of the 18th-century, was named for Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), Louis XV's widely unliked French finance minister who cut black paper portraits as a hobby. Beginning in the 1700s, silhouette-cutting gained credence as art form in the United States because of its popularity among the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie. However, by the mid-1800s, “shadow portraits” had lost most of their prestige. Being deemed a craft rather than an art form, secured this portriature technique a place at carnivals and in classrooms devoted to the training of “good ladies.” During the early 20th-century, silhouettes gained favor as sentimental keepsakes and souvenirs at fairs.
Such imagery was also tied into the 18th-century phenomenon of physiognomy, a pseudo-science claiming that one’s character and intelligence were inscribed on one's profile. This reduction of human beings to their physical appearance presented Walker with a tool from which to deploy other characterizations found in the history of racial representation.
For Walker, the simplified details of a human form in the black cut-outs seem cartoonish, and resonate with racial stereotypes (see Representing Race ) that are also reductions of actual human beings. 2
In 1994 at the Drawing Center in New York, Walker exhibited her first large scale cut-paper silhouette mural, Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, a tableau some 50 feet long and 13 feet high that was unprecedented in form, scale, and subject matter.
To create a silhouette, Walker draws her images with a greasy white pencil or soft pastel crayon on large pieces of black paper, which she then cuts with an X-ACTO knife. As she composes her images, she thinks in reverse, in a way, because she needs to flip the silhouettes over after she cuts them. The images are then adhered to paper, canvas, wood, or directly to the gallery wall with wax.
1Garrels, Gary, and Alexander Alberro. Kara Walker, Upon My Many Masters-An Outline. Brochure. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1997. Interview by Alexander Alberro.
2 Lott, Tommy, "Kara Walker Speaks: A Public Conversation on Racism, Art, and Politics with Tommy Lott." Black Renaissance 3, no.1 (Fall, 2000): 69-91.
3 "Conversations with Contemporary Artists" (New York: Museum of Modern Art 1999) http://www.moma.org/onlineprojects/conversations/kw_f.html.
Narrative Vignettes and Cyclorama
Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern 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 in her Cause 1997
cut paper on wall
12 x 85 ft. (3.7 x 25.9 m)
Collections Peter Norton and Eileen Harris Norton, Santa Monica
Kara Walker is drawn to literature ranging from historical romantic fiction to 19th-century slave narratives for their depictions of the antebellum South. (see Narrative). Books such as Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel Gone with the Wind, Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852, and Harriet Jacob's "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" published in 1861 all use different language to convey history and the horrors of slavery. (see Narrative). Walker's interest in these epic tales has evolved into her own versions of imagined histories that she displays in large-scale wall murals.
In one of her works, Slavery! Slavery! she constructs a story in the round, by presenting silhouettes in a 360-degree installation modeled after the 19th century cyclorama. A cyclorama is a large, cyclindrical painting. The artist experienced this antiquated art form during her youth in Atlanta, where a 400-foot cyclorama of the infamous Civil War conflict, the Battle of Atlanta is on display. Like the Atlanta panoramic mural, the scale of Slavery! Slavery! insists that the viewer participate in the story by walking across the periphery of the landscape as if spying on the events taking place. Additionally, the circular structure of the work eliminates a clear beginning or end to the story. In the artist's words, “ Slavery! Slavery! was the first time that I had a completely circular space to surround the viewer and kind of build a narrative that doesn't actually start on the left. I didn't want for it to be read from left to right like the pieces that were on a flat wall."4
4 Walker interviewed by Philippe Vergne on June 20, 2006 at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
5 Walker interviewed by Susan Sollins, Program 5: Stories. Art:21—Art in the 21st Century, Season 2, VHS and DVD (New York: PBS, 2003).
Art on Call Archive: Kara Walker discusses her interest in 19th-century popular culture and its influence on the piece 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 from 1997. Please click play to hear the audio.
gouache on paper
63 3/4 x 51 1/2 in. (161.9 x 130.8 cm)
Courtesy the Dakis Joannou Collection, Athens
While Kara Walker is best known for her black-and-white cut-outs, she started her artistic career as a painter. She worked primarily in oil as an undergraduate student at the Atlanta School of Art, yet when she graduated in 1991 and left Atlanta to attend the Rhode Island School of Design (MFA, 1994), she shifted her focus to cut-paper silhouettes. For Walker, painting was increasingly connected to an expression of upper class history. The silhouette, with it's assignment as a middle class art form, allowed her to explore different questions about race and power.
She has since returned to painting with gouache and watercolor at various times, particularly in 2001 when she began a series of mixed media paintings where she layered black silhouettes over colorful landscapes.
“There was a kind of grandiloquence to painting that I was beginning to mistrust, at least in my relationship to it and it's relationship to me. I began to think of painting as indicative of those kind of social structures that put me in last place. . . as a woman of color, black woman in America.” 6
“When I left Atlanta I slowly abandoned oil painting altogether weaning myself of its obvious seduction...I was determined to be better; to make work that would actually stimulate others, not just myself...a lot of this has to do with my leaving the South.” 7
6 Walker interviewed by Philippe Vergne on June 20, 2006 at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
7 Walker interviewed by Alexander Alberro. Garrels, Gary, and Alexander Alberro. Kara Walker, Upon My Many Masters-An Outline. Brochure. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1997.
Do you Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk? 1997
watercolor, colored pencil, 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
Drawing is a constant process for Kara Walker. She draws images to cut into silhouettes, creates works in charcoal, uses colored pencil on paper and sketches thoughts and ideas in notebooks with diaristic spontaneity. Small in scale, but powerful in content, Walker's series of 66 works on paper titled Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk? (1997) records the artist's imaginations as a response to public criticism of her work.
“Over the years I’ve… continued to make watercolors and drawings…they spill out of me.” 8
Art on Call Archive: Commentary on the debate and censorship of the artist's work. Please click play to hear the audio.
To read more about the controversy over Walker's work please download the Gallery Guide (PDF) and look at page 10.
8Contemporary Art in Conversation Lecture: Kara Walker with Philippe Vergne at Walker Art Center, June 2005.
typewriting and collage on 30 index cards
index cards: 3 x 5 in. (7.6 x 12.7 cm) each
Collection Jean-Pierre and Rachel Lehmann
Kara Walker incorporates text in many of her drawings, yet a small body of her work is entirely text-based. Texts, and Many Black Women (Certain Types) (2002) are comprised of sentences, quotes and short phrases typewritten on index cards. These expressions appear as notes the artist writes to herself, as well as thoughts voiced directly to the viewer.
Taking a bigger form, Letter from a Black Girl (1998) is a large-scale wall text written to an ambiguous receiver that address and conflates the power dynamics present in the relationships between artist and art world, master and slave, and two lovers.
“In 2001, I sat down at my typewriter again to try and ‘do away with images’ because they are so tricky and ineffective sometimes. So I made a project of working on these small 3x5 index cards and typing as a form of drawing. What I wanted to write I felt I didn’t have the patience for, so I kept these little diatribes and conversations limited in size. What I liked about working this way was the sound of the typing and the way voices and places revolved around my head, settled for a second on the page and then went back in to the whirlwind." 9
9 Walker interviewed by Silke Boerma. Berg, Stephan, ed. Kara Walker. Catalogue. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Modo Verlag in association with Kunstverein Hannover, 2002. Published in conjunction with the exhibition For the Benefit of All the Races of Mankind (Mos’ Specially the Master One, Boss). An Exhibition of Artifacts, Remnants and Effluvia EXCAVATED from the Black Heart of a Negress, in 2002.
Art on Call Archive: Excerpt from Kevin Young's essay on language in Kara Walker's work Letter from a Black Girl. Please click play to hear the audio.
Darkytown Rebellion 2001
cut paper and projection on wall
14 x 37 ft. (4.3 x 11.3 m)
Collection Musee d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg
Like her wall-sized murals and cyclorama, Kara Walker employs light projection to cast shadows and create all-encompassing environments for viewers. In Darkytown Rebellion Walker applies paper-cut silhouettes to the wall and then washes them with vibrant light from colored transparencies on several overhead projects placed on the floor of the gallery. Viewers are further involved with this installation as their shadows are also cast onto the wall as they walk through the space. In this way, visitors literally enter the narrative and the history it suggests through their own silhouettes.
“I knew for a while that I wanted to make a piece that tried to engage the space a little bit more directly than the pieces that are just cut paper on the wall. And I had been using the overhead projectors as a kind of a shadow-play tool. Not really as a tool for making the work—they’re usually hand-drawn. But I wanted to activate the space in a way and have these overhead projectors serve as a kind of stand-in for the viewer, as observers. And my thinking about the overhead projectors connected with my thinking about painting as far as creating an illusion of depth, but in a very mundane, flat, almost didactic way.” 10
10 Walker interviewed by Susan Sollins, Program 5: Stories. Art:21—Art in the 21st Century, Season 2, VHS and DVD (New York: PBS, 2003).
Video, Film, and Performance
...the angry surface of some grey and threatening sea (working title) 2007
16mm film and video transferred to DVD, black and white, sound; and plywood trees
Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Building on her work with the cyclorama, wall-sized murals, and light projections, Walker undertook a series of experiments with moving images in 2001. Using cut-paper puppets, hand-built stage sets, and Super 8 film in her studio, she began to animate the characters in her narratives.
This culminated in 2004 with her first film animation, Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions. Through texts that appear between scenes, she tells the story of a lynching of a plantation master and his statesman by their mistresses in an ironic inversion of power that crystallizes the constructs that Walker says sculpt her expression as a black woman.
Walker's second black-and-white film and video piece, 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, A Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005), consists of eight grim fantasies that hypothesize the genesis of the black experience in America. Here she incorporates sound for the first time, and interweaves music, texts, film and spoken work to tell the story of "African-America."
Walker plays the role of puppeteer in these films, yet she makes no attempt to hide her hands as she manipulates the puppets in the frame. During her 2005 solo exhibition at REDCAT on Los Angeles in 2005 that featured 8 Possible Beginnings, the artist staged live, improvised performances of the piece at the opening and closing of the show.
"It’s been a very slow leap… from the wall to the moving image. I went through the projection pieces first and then I hemmed and hawed on making a film for a long time. . . . I kept running across silhouette films from the early 20th Century and I thought that was just the logical next step. Just esthetically. But… I think because this work is very theatrical and because… the structure sort of referenced… you know, fall into these two camps, visual and literary. It almost screams for some kind of… merger of those worlds. Something theatrical in a real sense. I think, for a while, I resisted film because I kind of liked the stubbornness or obstinate quality of just looking at stationary images that kind of force you to make the connections.11
11 Walker interviewed by Philippe Vergne on June 20, 2006 at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Art on Call Archive: Kara Walker discusses the transition from working on the wall to making film. Please click play to hear the audio.