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Photo by Sari Goodfriend

Kara Walker’s (b. 1969) debut occurred in 1994 with her mural “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.” Not only is this piece a mouthful to speak, but it will stop you dead in your tracks, as will most all of Walker’s work. In her classic black cut-paper silhouette mural style, Walker shows us an old-timey southern scene full of sex and slavery, employing ethnic stereotypes in the physicality of the characters to depict who clearly is “slave” and who is “master.” All the while, this grim and gruesome scene is portrayed in a distinctly tragicomic style dislodging viewers, causing us to squirm in our seats. I struggled with what to show and what to say about Walker’s work; her boldness is affronting to say the least. She is certainly completely conscious of how provocative and gut-wrenching her work is to viewers, both black and white alike. Her work asks us to think and feel in very powerful ways. What I can say in any short order is that I not only admire her masterful skill, but I also respect her unflinching approach to depicting the history of American slavery in all its extreme violence, racism, and sexism. In a way, the artistic style of the cut-outs is quite beautiful and elegant, while the content itself sickens me….and yet, that’s the point—it should.

Not surprisingly, her work has been met with extreme controversy on more than one occasion when fellow African American artists and collectors have protested at various exhibitions. In fact, the last artist I featured, Betye Saar, said in a 1999 PBS documentary that Walker’s work is “revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves..[and] basically for the amusement and investment of the White art establishment.” Clearly, Walker’s work is not met with universal acclaim.

Nevertheless, Walker has risen to the top of the art world exhibiting at NYC’s MoMA and the Whitney among other museums worldwide. At the age of 27 she became the second youngest recipient of the coveted John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant. She now lives in NYC and is a professor in the MFA program at Columbia University.

Because of Walker’s fierce courage, her technical mastery, her pioneering style, and her unflinching approach to a subject all-too-often overlooked, I feel that Kara Walker is one of America’s iconic visual artists, #4 of my list of 25.

Kara Walker “Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b'tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart” 1994, cut paper on wall, dimensions variable. Installation.

Kara Walker “World Exposition” 1997, cut paper on wall, dimensions variable. Installation.

Kara Walker "Mistress Demanded a Swift and Dramatic Empathetic Reaction Which We Obliged Her" 2000, Projection, cut paper and adhesive on wall, 12 x 17 feet

Kara Walker “Exodus of Confederates from Atlanta from Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)” 2005, one from a portfolio of fifteen lithograph and screenprints

Kara Walker “Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!” 2012-13, Graphite crayon, pastel, and Flasche on paper; acrylic, watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper; cut paper and paint on wall, dimensions variable. Installation.

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