Still Here: Artist Kara Walker in Black and White

Article excerpt



On a beautiful autumn afternoon in a small New England college town, dozens of people arc packed into a dark auditorium that's as hushed as a church. They've come to Williams College - some sitting, some standing against the hack wall, and some spilling out into the aisles - to hear artist Kara Walker discuss her latest work.

Tall and thin with long braids snaking down her back, Walker's speaking voice is surprisingly sol't - unlike her artistic voice, which has rocked the art world for the past decade. She's done so through her now trademark silhouettes, large black paper cutouts set against stark white walls. The format might bring to mind genteel, Victorian-era cameos, but the subject matter couldn't be less polite: often graphic, life-sized depictions showing racial and sexual power struggles of slavery and the antebellum South.

As Walker continues her talk in Williamstown, Mass., slides of her work are projected on a screen above her. In explaining how one particular image requires close scrutiny to make out what's really going on, she jokingly tells the audience, "there's always the option of not looking."

But with Kara Walker's art, it's difficult not to.

"As a medium, they mean a great deal to me as speaking about an absence, a violent act rendered beautifully," Walker, 34, says of the silhouettes during a telephone interview. "I think I wanted to send up this expectation that as a Black woman artist 1 would be 'authentically Black.'"

Expectation has weighed heavily on Walker since she burst on the scene with a 1994 debut at the Drawing Center in New York's Soho. Since then, her work has been shown across the country and around the world, from the 2002 Sao Paulo I Bienal in Brazil to the Centre d'Arte Contemporain in Geneva. In 1997, at the tender age of 27, she won a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said there are no second acts in American lives, but Walker defies that notion. Her talent and her already considerable achievements raise a question for admirers and critics alike: What's next?

But glimpsing into the future means, as it so often does, considering the past. There's Kara Elizabeth Walker's own past, being born in Stockton, Calif., and raised in Atlanta, where she earned her bachelor's degree at the Atlanta College of Art before getting a master's at the Rhode Island School of Design. And then there's the past she's taking on in her art. The problem, Walker says, is that some people assume her work is, or should be, a literal take on slavery.

Although she was raised in the South, Walker says she didn't feel ready to address race in her work until she put some distance between herself and the South's complex racial history by moving north to attend graduate school. Walker started college in the late 1980s, the era of "It's a Black Thing. You Wouldn't Understand." She felt added pressure from some of her art school professors to create work that was "identifiably Black" -whatever that meant.

In the course of figuring out what that meant, she created a character called "the Negress." The term shape-shifts so that at times it has applied to her as the artist and at other times it's the stereotypical dusky slave mistress in the work.

The work seduces and repels at the same time. The silhouettes draw the viewer in with crisp lines and sharp detail, but then provoke a step back with images that depict degradation or brutality, such as rape or a slave exulting in his slaveowners' heads stuck on poles. The images often stretch across several walls, creating a narrative, as in "Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War As It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart."

To create the silhouettes, Walker holds heavy black paper up against the wall and uses white wax pencils to draw her figures freehand before slicing them out with an X-Acto knife and fixing them to the walls with adhesive. …