The silhouette paper-cut, once the preserve of polite Victorian drawing rooms, has taken on a new lease of life in the hands of African-American artist Kara Walker. Since her 1994 work Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994) was exhibited at The Drawing Center, New York, propelling her into the limelight, Walker has continued to craft exquisite paper-cut installations. Playing upon preconceptions of the medium’s bourgeois quaintness, Walker daintily depicts pornographic, macabre, violent themes of slavery and social, sexual and racial struggle. The result is a beautiful, provocative, and grimly humorous mixture of fairytale Hollywood kitsch and fierce social and historical critique that has earned Walker a reputation as one of America’s most important contemporary artists.
Born in California to painter Larry Walker, Kara Walker trained at the Atlanta College of Art, Georgia before going on to study at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1997, the MacArthur Foundation awarded her a ‘Genius Grant’. Walker was one of the youngest recipients of the award in its history and it was her first brush with the fierce controversy that her work would continue to court. Her critics viewed her use of the cartoonish, racist archetypes of historic American popular culture as retroactive and negative. Her advocates proclaimed their irony and relevance to the race discourse in a world where racism still abounds.
In 2002, Walker represented the USA at the São Paulo Biennial and produced her extraordinary circular work, Slavery! Slavery! (1997). From the early 2000s she began experimenting with projection and coloured light and her installations became more and more theatrical, culminating in films such as 8 Possible Beginnings (2005). In 2007, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in The World, Artists and Entertainers.
A new chapter in the career of this inimitable artist was unveiled in 2014 with A Subtlety, Walker’s 75ft-long sculpture in white sugar of a sphinx-like black woman in a posture of servitude.
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