Born in Stockton, California, Walker and her family moved when the artist was thirteen to a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, where the family witnessed the shock of Deep South culture, a motif that Walker continues to employ in her artwork.
After graduating with an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 1994, Kara Walker became one of the youngest recipients of the distinguished MacArthur Fellowship in 1997; however, her achievement was wrought with controversy over her artistic interpretation of racial histories. African American feminist artists of previous generations, most prominently Betye Saar, saw Walker’s work not as commentary, but as a regression for those who work to end the stereotypical representation of African Americans in visual culture.
Exploring themes of slavery, violence and sex, Walker’s life-size, silhouetted wall installations recall the tensions between race, class and gender in the Antebellum South with playful, but powerful titles stemming from slave narratives and folklore. These images are meant to attract and to repulse simultaneously, forcing the audience to rethink the accepted history of slavery in America; however, through this work, Walker implicates all viewers, regardless of race or gender.
Walker’s work is not limited to large-scale murals. NMWA’s collection includes one of her artist’s books, Freedom: A Fable; A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times, with Illustrations, 1997. This leather-bound book utilizes the medium of the silhouette, but provides a narrative to the images that address race relations in the postwar South.
Walker resides in New York, where she is a professor of visual arts for the MFA program at Columbia University.
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About the Artist Spotlight author: Jackie Witkowski will be a senior at DePaul University in Chicago, majoring in Art History. She is interning for the Education Department and the Library and Research Center for NMWA this summer.