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The South, United States: Kara Walker's bold, simple, and loaded images

Run with it, they always encourage us. See where it takes you.

Starting with a fascination for the intermingling themes of violence and sexuality in Southern culture, Kara Walker graduated from a painter, desiring to be an artist, to a sculptor of epic relevance in the art world at large. Her themes came to fruition when she utilized paper cutouts - popular decorative arts, simultaneously used as mug shots for slaves, in the 18th and 19th centuries - while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design.

“I started this work with the silhouettes with the express project to make a black woman’s art. The black woman and me, the Negress and myself. Sort of one and the same and completely separate. It’s born partly out of just the experience of my body as it’s moved through the world, and the bodies it’s come in contact with. The kind of residual racism, residual psychosis, residual misogyny of the world.” —quoted in History Girl

Yet this creator of bold and fierce imagery is, according to W contributor Julie B. Belcove, quite the opposite in manner:
On a crisp winter morning in New York’s garment district, Kara Walker is sitting alone in her studio, quietly working at her desk wearing jeans and a camisole, which accentuate her willowy limbs. When a visitor enters, she self-consciously covers up with a shirt. She is soft-spoken, contemplative and reserved. When she frets that she may be revealing too much during an interview, she gets up to steep a cup of tea in the studio’s makeshift kitchen and compose her thoughts.
History Girl

Her art, it seems, is her means of exploring and coming to terms with complicated behaviors, past, present and haunting, that rattle her psyche. A creative self-help is almost the contradiction of modern psychology, what with its closed door and private oath. If she is uncomfortable discussing too much, then, it is a recognition that this is the stuff usually kept disclosed.

And yet her stock characters are so spot-on, almost a relief in their more honest portrayal of people we are taught in watered-down and semi-glorified romance histories and novels. Inline with sparse but vocal authors who have tried to capture Southern culture with words, Walker stuns us with images, perhaps more powerful.

Life-sized and manipulated by projection and light, the caricatures take on the ability to represent shadows, as if they are evidence of their living owners performing their acts of decapitation, fornication, lust and vengeance in the very room:

And miniaturized, they are the antithesis of the other models and shadowboxes that populate our art museums. Perhaps so small as to skip by if captivated by a wall hanging yonder, they are striking and disturbing once recognized:

Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching
You can view it at the Brooklyn Museum in Contemporary Art Galleries, 4th Floor

[photos (1-4) © W Magazine, via Sikkema Jenkins & Co.; (1) by Mario Sorrenti; (3) The Battle of Atlanta: Being the Narrative of a Negress in the Flames of Desire—A Reconstruction, 1995 (detail), cut paper and adhesive on wall; (4) Cut, 1998, cut paper and adhesive on wall]
[photos (5-6)
© Whitney Museum, via the October 2007-February 2008 exhibition, Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, view more at whitney.org/www/exhibition/kara_walker]
[photo (7)
© Brooklyn Museum via Sikkema Jenkins & Co., Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching, 2006, painted laser cut steel]

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