DOSSIER: Kara Walker, The Eternal Provocateur

By Julissa James

Illustration by GEORGE McCALMAN

Before she became Kara Walker the New York artist, Walker was a Central Valley kid. Born and raised in Stockton until she was 13, Walker’s artistic awakening took root there, before her family relocated to the suburbs of Atlanta. As a child, she spent hours sitting and watching her father, Larry Walker, a multimedia artist and then-art professor at the University of the Pacific, create his work. As a preteen, she traveled down the coast to San Diego for a Warhol gallery show and absorbed the work of Stockton author Maxine Hong Kingston, who signed a copy of China Men for the young Walker. Walker would go on to achieve worldwide recognition in her 20s for her stark silhouetted figures that explore the Black experience, including slavery, violence, gender and sexuality through an often whimsical lens, and most recently, through her viral public art installations. Her art — which has won many awards and lives in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum — has an undercurrent of childlike humor, despite sometimes being difficult to see and reckon with. As former MoMA curator Yasmil Raymond once said, Walker’s work “asks for a bench.”

Big breaks. Walker started showing work as an MFA student at the Rhode Island School of Design (she has a BFA from the Atlanta College of Art). Her big break came at 25 when her show — 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 shown at the Drawing Center in New York City. Two years later, at 27, Walker became one of the youngest people to win a MacArthur “genius” grant.

Go your own way. Walker is a willful Sagittarius who shares her November 26 birthday with two of her artistic guideposts: Tina Turner and Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz. Her courageous and independent sun sign may even be an explanation as to why, in the last few years, she hasn’t felt the need to continuously run on the artist’s hamster wheel. “I think the things that have become increasingly challenging in the course of this career have been, like, art fairs and art world expectations that have metastasized,” she noted during a Yale MFA Q&A in April 2020. “I’ve never really been good at sort of catching on to what is demanded of me a lot of the time.”

The process. “It comes from all here,” Walker said of her artistic process at the Yale MFA Q&A, gesturing toward her heart and chest. “It’s sometimes very spontaneous. Sometimes there is writing and sketching doodles and a reckoning of one’s self — myself. It’s ongoing and a question about self that I never seem to get to the bottom of.”

Highlight reel. In 2014, Walker unveiled her first public art installation, A Subtlety (also known as the Marvelous Sugar Baby), at the old Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was a 35-foot foam hybrid of a sphinx and a mammy figure, covered in four tons of sugar, resin and water — an homage to the fraught political and racial history of sugar in this country, and the largest piece of public art in the history of the city at the time. It was also a hit: More than 130,000 people came to view it before it was purposefully destroyed. Her next temporary public installation, in collaboration with composer Jason Moran, was Katastwóf Karavan, at Algiers Point in New Orleans in February 2018. Then there was Fons Americanus, a 42-​foot-​high fountain unveiled at Tate Modern in 2019.

Reactions. In a video for the Museum of Modern Art, culture writer Roxane Gay inspects Walker’s Christ’s Entry Into Journalism (2017), a 140½-by-196-inch paper canvas that attempts to depict the entirety of Black American history, or as Gay puts it, “a push and pull toward and away from freedom.” Notes Gay: “Kara always prioritizes Black bodies, and that there’s an absurdity to some of the things Black people have been subjected to, and that she is playing with that absurdity, it challenges me.” Or, as the art writer Antwaun Sargent wrote in a 2017 article for Vice: “The first time I saw Kara Walker’s art, I felt like I had been assaulted.”

Critique. Throughout her career, Walker has made the kind of work that has both “thrilled and repulsed viewers, including a constituency of older Black artists suspicious of her ease with racial stereotypes,” wrote Doreen St. Félix in a 2017 cover story on the artist for New York Magazine. Her art invites observers to sit with Black pain instead of flipping the narratives to be affirming and celebratory, like many Black artists before her did. In the 1990s, an issue of The International Review of African American Art was devoted to picking apart Walker’s work. The Black assemblage artist Betye Saar was especially outspoken about her opposition to it. But Walker remained steadfast. As she said to NY Mag: “What are they debating, really? My right to exist?”

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