Kara Walker’s Powerful Work Upends How We See Race in America

Yxta Maya Murray
Feb 12, 2019 10:17PM

Portrait of Kara Walker. Photo by Ari Marcopoulos. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Since Kara Walker’s stunning appearance on the art scene in 1994, when the Drawing Center showed her cut-paper, Victorian-valentine-from-hell Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart (1994), critics have debated whether viewers of Walker’s work participate in a fruitful unearthing of “unspeakable” racial trauma, or just get a hall pass to enjoy racist pornography.

Gone—now owned by the Museum of Modern Art—details the nightmare of a slavery-era plantation with exquisitely rendered violent, sexual imagery. On a bayou frothy with Spanish moss and homicide, a young black girl flings newborn babies from her vagina. Another black child floats through the air, buoyed by a balloon-like penis. A white man and woman kiss under the moon—but an extra pair of feet dangle from the lady’s skirts, as if she has stored a slave under her crinoline.

Kara Walker, Brown Follies (Negress Notes) (details), 1996. © Kara Walker. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.


Many young artists might have felt stymied by the sort of explosive reaction that Walker received after that exhibition, but the twentysomething artist kept at it. She continued making controversial pieces such as “Negress Notes (Brown Folly),” a 1996 series that was swiftly snapped up by The Broad. Walker executed these watercolors in the style of racist, 19th-century caricatures, depicting black women performing intimate bodily functions and posing friskily in stockings.

The Rhode Island School of Design graduate became the second-youngest person to win a MacArthur Genius Grant Award in 1997. But two years later, fellow African-American artist Betye Saar called Walker’s depictions “revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves, particularly women and children; that it was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment.” Indeed, works such as Gone and “Negress Notes” announced Walker’s infidelity to the story of American race relations that had energized the abolitionist and civil rights movements. “The soul that is within me, no man can degrade,” as Frederick Douglass once said. In an equally resilient mood, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Walker’s art, on the other hand, minces: Eh, maybe, but maybe not. In pieces such as African/American (1998), also owned by MoMA, we meet a topless black woman wearing a necklace, a bracelet, and a rough skirt; she tumbles head-down through the air while affecting a placid expression. And in the 2005 series “Scene of McPherson’s Death from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated),” Walker overlaid battlefield scenes with horrifying silhouettes, such as one naked woman who is either dead or masturbating, and another who is dancing and singing—or running away from danger.

Walker does not assuage audiences’ bafflement and sadness at these images. Rather, she heightens tensions with axioms such as: “All black people…want to be slaves just a little bit. It gives people heaping teaspoons of dignity and pride.” Unsurprisingly, this has led to charges that the artist is politically irresponsible.

Kara Walker, The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos , 2010. © Kara Walker. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

“There is a tendency for people to see [Walker’s art] as historical illustration,” Dr. Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw said during a recent phone conversation. Shaw, author of Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (2004), noted that some believe Walker’s imagery “represents an actual past.” Shaw noted that visitors of Walker’s museum and gallery exhibitions are often silent—they “don’t know what to say” in the face of her work.

Walker’s more recent, mid-career gestures continue to confuse and shock onlookers, though the artist has not always rendered people speechless. The moral arc of history ideally bends toward justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism and unrestrained chaos (2010) is an MLK-jabbing, 6-by-9.5-foot drawing inspired by Barack Obama’s famous March 2008 oratory on race, wherein he imagined a “more equal, more free, more caring, and more prosperous America.” Walker responded to that optimism by showing Obama nested in a hell furnished with Klansmen, a burning cross, a black person fellating a stone-faced white master, and a terrified woman holding up her hands. Displayed at the Newark Public Library on November 19, 2012, this imagery did not trigger the silence described by Shaw, but rather earned so much ire from library employees that director Wilma Grey covered it up five days later.

Recent exhibitions have further demonstrated that in order to avoid the “betrayal” described by Saar, Walker’s art may be best shown in alternative venues that promote critical thinking. Audiences may be more inclined to interpret Walker’s work as literal reports on slavery in mainstream museum settings, institutions that read like placid and controlled receptacles of trustworthy culture—rather than killing fields filled with monstrous mind games that may very well hurt you. But when Walker’s art is presented in unconventional venues that turn out to possess hidden histories of racial trauma, observers may be awakened to the idea that not all is as it seems. In such surroundings, viewers stand a better (though sadly, not a rock-solid) chance of interpreting her work along its many axes of meaning.

Such was at least one of the possibilities created by Walker’s 2014 installation of A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,An Homage to the Unpaid and Overworked Artisans Who Have Refined Our Sweet Tastes From the Cane Fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the Demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. Occupying the former Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Walker sought to shed light on the sweet condiment’s brutal history. The artist built a 75-foot-long, 80-ton sugar sculpture of a sphinx whose lioness body ended in a plump rear end, its head sculpted in the tradition of Mammy iconography.

“The tricky thing with Kara’s work is that she built a sphinx, and it’s mute,” observed Nato Thompson, who produced A Subtlety for Creative Time in 2014 before moving on to his current role with Philadelphia Contemporary, in an interview. “What you saw was a public art piece where people were not only looking at the public sculpture, but also the public looking at the public looking at the art.…It made people aware that not [everybody is] the same when they look at the same thing.”

Kara Walker, The Katastwóf Karavan, 2017. Photo by Alex Marks. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Did A Subtlety, in its telling setting of the refinery, teach people about the connections between sugar and enslavement? Rapturous critical response (Walker “subjects a grand, decaying structure fraught with the conflicted history of the sugar trade and its physical residue to a kind of predemolition purification ritual,” wrote Roberta Smith in the New York Times) was undercut by some of the reactions that Thompson alluded to, including a gang of Instagram posts showing people pretending to give the sphinx cunnilingus or tease her nipples.

Still, the liberatory potential of A Subtlety’s out-of-the-box setting found even greater realization with Walker’s 2018 Katastwóf Karavan. At New Orleans’s art festival Prospect.4, Walker installed the eponymous 19th-century musical instrument at the Algiers Point on the banks of the Mississippi River. In the 1800s, enslaved people were held at Algiers Point before being ferried across the water, but no public markers memorialize this history. To counter this erasure, Walker installed a whistling calliope within a caravan illustrated with her signature images. The instrument played songs of resistance (such as Jimi Hendrix’s “Freedom”) and shrieked out dissonant notes that assaulted people’s ears.

Walker’s gallery, Sikkema, Jenkins & Co., recognizes the fragility of her messaging. In 2017, it issued a press release about an upcoming show, which included the incendiary racial motifs of Christ’s Entry into Journalism (2017), a pen-and-ink-wash drawing showing black people being maimed while white men pleasure themselves. Written by Walker herself, the Sikkema release began with the paragraph-long title of the show, which includes: “Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media. Parents will cover the eyes of innocent children.…Empires will fall, although which ones, only time will tell.”

Shaw, who curated Walker’s 2018 show “Virginia’s Lynch Mob and Other Works”at the Montclair Art Museum, agrees that institutions must carefully frame Walker’s work so that it does not lose nuance. “All of this death and pain and suffering, how do you address that in an institution like MoMA or The Broad?” she asked. “I think that there are ways that those institutions can participate in really expanding the dialogue, beyond just [making] comments at well-attended, sparkly openings. But it’s a delicate process.” Shaw paused for a moment and then sighed. Exhibiting Walker’s art, she admitted, “becomes particularly a problem when these institutions have not evidenced a lot of diversity, either at the exhibition or staff level, let alone the leadership level.”

Yxta Maya Murray