Kara Walker: Romance, Race, Slavery and Sex Influence Celebrated Visual Artist's Work

Article excerpt

Often dressed in funky, chic or romantic hipster styles, Kara Walker considers her words carefully as she speaks in quiet, gentle tones. While Walker's demeanor is calm like her soft, doe-like eyes, her work exploded like a bomb in the New York art world after she received a master's in fine arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1997.

Indeed, not many African-American artists can make the claims Walker can. Just two years out of art school, she was well on her way to superstardom, including whining a prestigious MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Award. Her first show, Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, was a media sensation at New York's Drawing Center in 1994.

In fact, the title of her first exhibition--a play on the famous Margaret Mitchell novel, Gone With the Wind, reflects much about her life and approach to her art. Until her adolescence, for example, Walker lived in Stockton, Calif., a world she remembers as "free to be you and me," while attending desegregated Martin Luther King Elementary School, where ethnic, political and religious holidays like Cinco de Mayo were respected, celebrated and examined thoroughly for their cultural relevance. That perspective shifted when Kara was 13 and her father, a professor at the University of the Pacific, accepted the position of chairman of the art department at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Kara is now a professor at Columbia University in New York.

In the segregated suburbs of Stone Mountain outside Atlanta, Walker's only knowledge of the area up to that point had been news of the infamous "Atlanta Child Murders." She still owns the badge her father wore upon his return from a visit "back home" during the job search that says "Save Our Children."

He was born in Georgia and still had good feelings and family there in "The New South." But Kara's question was "new compared to what?" Her father had come from an era when the Deep South was rampant with the Ku Klux Klan and "Whites Only" signs, while Kara was born after the Martin Luther King Jr.-led Civil Rights Movement brought Black Americans the right to vote, as well as eat, drink, live and educate themselves wherever they chose. Walker says that being an outsider allows one to see things that those who have grown up in the midst of certain events cannot. And she felt the differences between the two regions of the country where she had lived. Part of that, she says, was "Being a Black girl [in the South] felt like it was a bad thing to be."

While working in a bookstore, she says she became interested in romances through encounters with customers who read them. "These people ordered multiples and devoured them. What need was being filled?" she asks, adding that she marveled at these fictionalized histories and how they physically affected the reader with what she calls "tropes of titillation." Slave narratives entered these genres often because of their romantic nature. "They worry and upset the reader," she says, and felt she lived in a place where the Civil War was still outside the window.

In graduate school, she experimented with different media. She had chosen the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) because it offered a scholarship and because of a long history of an inclusive environment of traditional art making media such as glass and textiles along with the fine arts. She says she was "looking for art that accommodates a polite female sensibility," unlike painting with "all its [patriarchal] baggage."

Walker needed to come to grips with some things--to talk about race, the romanticizing of slavery, the origins of Blackface, the arguments put forth about cranial shape that supported 19th century racists' stereotypes. All of those references reinforced her logic that the old-world technique of cutting quick, inexpensive portraits from black paper was perfect to convey her hyper-realistic, emotionally charged images. …