5 Fast Facts About #5WomenArtists Changing the World: Kara Walker

Multidisciplinary artist Kara Walker (b. 1969) candidly investigates topics of race, gender, sexuality, and violence. While best known for her panoramic, cut-paper silhouettes, she has also produced large-scale sculptural installations, videos, paintings, and shadow puppets that address the history—and psychological impacts—of American slavery and racism.

An open spread of a pop-up book featuring one of Walker's signature black-and-white cut-paper silhouettes which shows a female slave holding a bucket to, presumably, her master, who sits on, presumably, a big pile of cotton while a young boy slave is on the other side holding a bag of cotton. In the distance another female slave picks cotton in front of a heap. Text from the narrative is positioned on both the right and left pages in the upper corners.

Kara Walker, Freedom, A Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times, 1997; Ink on paper, laser-cut black card stock, leather binding, 8 1/4 x 9 1/2 in.; NMWA; © Ellie Bronson

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1. All Consuming

Walker does not believe that her provocative and historically inspired art “deals with history,” but rather that it responds to history. “Embedded in that statement, ‘Kara Walker is dealing with history,’ is this…desire for a hero who can fix this problem of our history and racism,” says Walker in an Art21 interview. “I don’t think my work is actually effectively dealing with history. I think of my work as subsumed…or consumed by history.”

2. Artist/Author

Walker often includes writing and storytelling in her artwork. Her pop-up book Freedom, A Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times (1997), part of NMWA’s artists’ book collection, tells the story of a freed female slave. And in 2001, Walker created a series of short, diary-like writings on index cards that were exhibited in American Primitive at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. One card reads, “We are Superman. Venus, Oprah, Toni, Angela, Tina, Serena, Kara…We End in Vowel sounds and Our names Last Forever when you speak them aaah!”

3. Socially Aware Curator

In 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art invited Walker to curate an exhibition using its permanent collection. Walker titled the show After the Deluge as a response to the horrors of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. She juxtaposed paintings of churning water, including Winslow Homer’s Gulf Stream (1899), with her own print portfolio to address the external forces that shape and transform Black life, including “the sea, the slave trade, and the failure of retaining walls.”

4. Illustrating a Libretto

In 2011, Walker’s friend Alicia Hall Moran was cast as Bess in the opera Porgy and Bess. Walker sat in on run-throughs to sketch the show and was eventually asked to create illustrations for a limited-edition libretto. The resulting sixteen lithographs are “…more an homage to the feeling of the music” rather than addressing the show’s stereotypical portrayals of African Americans. Walker notes that Porgy and Bess “lives in a murky place in popular culture and personal reflection.”

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5. Unsweet History

In 2014, Walker and her team built the monumental sugar sculpture A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby in the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. The giant sphinx was a monument to the slaves whose labor built the sugar industry. In the heat of the summer, the sphinx and the smaller life-size sculptures of children began to melt. “I really love the fact of these figures melting and dripping,” said Walker. “[The figures and the factory are] still sort of weeping the substance.”

—Hannah Southern is the fall 2019 publications and communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: January 13, 2017

As the Women’s March on Washington approaches, The Huffington Post highlights NMWA’s Free Community Weekend and special “Nasty Women” tour on Sunday, January 22nd.

ARTnews shares a list of museum statements, closures, and admissions policy changes for January 20th and the following weekend.

Artists Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh organized the Pussy Hat Project for the Women’s March on Washington, offering free patterns to knit hats.

Out of more than 5,000 art submissions by women, the Amplifier Foundation selects the eight poster designs for the march. Five of the posters are available for free online.

Front-Page Femmes

The Tate plans to appoint Maria Balshaw as its first female director since the museum’s founding in 1897.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum installs an enlarged version of a miniature painting titled I Need a Hero by Pakistani artist Ambreen Butt.

Brain Pickings examines Simone de Beauvoir’s perspective on the role of chance and choice in life.

Genevieve Gaignard “fearlessly examines America’s heart” through exploring different personas.

A crowdfunding campaign is underway to create a memorial for Fanny Cornforth’s unmarked grave. Cornforth was best known as one of Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s favorite models.

Juxtapoz features LaToya Ruby Frazier’s award-winning first book, The Notion of Family, exploring the economic decline of her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania.

Women Who Draw, a new website, showcases the work of women illustrators and allows the artists to highlight different aspects of their identity.

The Guardian shares ten books by “wild women” who transgressed social, personal, and literary boundaries, including works by Leonora Carrington, Margaret Cavendish, and Audre Lorde.

Daliyah Marie Arana, the four-year-old girl who has read more than 1,000 books, shadows Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden as “librarian for the day.”

Tracee Ellis Ross won a Golden Globe for her role in the television series Black-ish and dedicated her award to women of color.

La Medea, a new production by Brooklyn-based artist Yara Travieso, “combines dance, interactive theater, live music, film, and live broadcasting, creating a genre of art all its own.”

Artsy explores the importance of feminist art that transcends boundaries race, gender, and class.

Hyperallergic explores recent documentaries about well-known painters Elizabeth Murray and Carmen Herrera.

Shows We Want to See

The exhibition Room showcases 15 private, emotionally charged spaces created by women artists, including works by Nan Godin, Louise Bourgeois, and Francesca Woodman.

The Whitechapel Gallery commissioned the Guerrilla Girls to conduct a survey on gender and racial inequality in European art institutions. The resulting exhibition shows that little has changed since their 1986 campaign “It’s Even Worse in Europe.”

Hyperallergic reflects on Kara Walker’s “tumultuous charcoal drawings” featured in a recent exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: August 26, 2016

Israeli artist Sigalit Landau’s latest work made headlines this week.

Landau’s photographic work Salt Bride shows the gradual crystallization of a 19th-century dress weighted to the floor of the Dead Sea.

Landau’s final  installation, on view at Marlborough Contemporary in London, includes a series of eight life-size photographs.

Front-Page Femmes

Carrie Mae Weems speaks to Lenny Letter.

Artsy discusses why motherhood does not hinder women’s careers as artists.

The Huffington Post writes, “Feminist art is making a comeback in Los Angeles.”

Lorna Simpson talks about her influences, fiction, and progress.

The New York Times discusses a major exhibition featuring 51 artists—only three of whom are women.

The Guerrilla Girls re-evaluate Museum Ludwig’s collection through a feminist lens.

For the ten year anniversary of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston, the museum showcases half of its collection—64% of which is work by women artists.

Zanele Muholi discusses a photograph from her “Faces and Phases” series, about “creating positive images of black lesbians and transgender people in South African society.”

The Guardian interviews artists Amaal Said, Rachel Long, Rena Minegishi, and Sunayana Bhargava about the ways women of color are portrayed in today’s culture.

Laurie Anderson performed her Concert for Dogs in a sculpture garden to a canine audience.

Stephanie Syjuco’s exhibition Neutral Calibration Studies (Ornament + Crime) explores the appropriation of patterns from other cultures.

Serpentine Sackler Gallery will host an exhibition of Zaha Hadid’s paintings, drawings and digital art.

Laura Marling’s podcast Reversal of The Muse discusses female creativity.

Oakland-based artist Annie Vought creates intricately cut letters from large sheets of paper.

Kumi Yamashita creates single-thread portraits and silhouette art.

Sonia Rykiel, called the “queen of knitwear,” died this week at the age of 86.

Kara Walker helped create a new music video for “Banshee,” a song from Santigold’s 99¢ album.

Paris-based U.S. cultural critic Lauren Elkin’s book Flâneuse provides a “joyful genealogy of the female urban walker.”

Yayoi Kusama illustrates The Little Mermaid.

NPR interviews Imbolo Mbue about her debut novel Behold the Dreamers.

Shows We Want to See

Interdisciplinary artist Shani Crowe’s exhibition Braids, on view at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn, explores the ancestral and modern-day relevance of hair braiding.

Belief + Doubt: Selections from the Francie Bishop Good and David Horvitz Collection at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale consists of 70 newly acquired works—a “jolt of contemporary art” by prominent women artists.

Tate Liverpool hosts a retrospective of Austrian painter Maria Lassnig’s work. The Telegraph writes, “Lassnig’s radical self-portraiture took in her multiple roles.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: November 27, 2015

New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd interviewed over 100 men and women in the film industry, examined movie history, and relayed the experiences of female directors, showrunners, and actresses.

Women in the film industry recount stories of discrimination, stigmatization, and outright sexism. The article also shares several key statistics:

  • The six major movie studios only released three movies last year with a female director.
  • In 2013 and 2014, women were only 1.9% of the directors for the 100 top-grossing films.
  • Only two women have ever directed a $100 million big-action blockbuster
  • From 2007 through 2014, women made up only one-third of speaking roles in the 100 top fictional films.

Front-Page Femmes

The Creators Project discusses the work of French artist Prune Nourry, who created 108 Terracotta Daughters modeled after Chinese orphans.

artnet shares seven quotes by Kara Walker, in honor of the artist’s 46th birthday.

Janet Echelman uses unorthodox fiber art materials to make building-sized sculptures.

Campaigners in Scotland want a series of memorial sculptures commemorating the country’s forgotten and unsung heroines.

Food artist Prudence Staite rendered a Nativity scene entirely of cheese.

Elle lists 14 powerful women in today’s art scene, including 100-year-old painter Carmen Herrera.

NMWA artist Chakaia Booker creates a massive sculptural tire work for the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.

The New York Times reports that Art Basel Miami Beach includes a significant number of women artists.

Angela Palmer engraves glass sculptures with details taken from MRI and CT scans.

London-based artist Celina Teague explores the statement that “people don’t have faith in female artists.”

Buzzfeed shares photos of German-born American painter and sculptor Eva Hesse.

Beijing banned an art exhibition about feminism and domestic violence.

Juliana Huxtable’s commissioned performance work at the Museum of Modern Art “weaves together a string of reference paths as varied as historical cosplay, club aesthetics, and Internet archeology.”

Performance artist Karen Finley impersonates the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in The Jackie Look.

The Huffington Post outlines arguments for and against using the term “women artists.”

Boston’s mayor declared November 20, 2015 “Corita Kent Day” in honor of what would have been the late nun and artist’s 97th birthday.

The pop music of Los Angeles-based composer Julia Holter and Colombian musician Lucrecia Dalt confront expectations of female artists.

Amy Berg’s documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, “sustains a double vision of both the child and the hard-living folk-blues mama Joplin became.”

The Guardian writes “a wider range of female voices is finally being heard” and praises a new generation of women playwrights.

The New Yorker investigates the motivations behind Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt.

Shows We Want to See

Public Works: Artists’ Interventions 1970s–Now features photos, prints, audio, video, and installations by 23 women artists who “explore the inherent politics and social conditions of creating art in public space.” The artists represented include Tania Bruguera, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, the Guerrilla Girls, and Jenny Holzer.

Tracey Emin’s pensive exhibition, I Cried Because I Love You, will include sketches, embroidered works, and art created from neon lights and bronze.

Wild Girl: Gertrude Hermes is the first major exhibition in 30 years to showcase the sculptor’s works. Apollo Magazine says, “Hermes defied critical snobbery with sculptures made from found materials, including skittles from the local pub.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: November 6, 2015

The Guardian discusses why the Baileys prize, the women’s prize for fiction writing, is still needed after 20 years. Research found that “women were responsible for buying two thirds of books sold in the U.S. and U.K.,” however reviews often cover more books written by men.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun won the “Best of the Best” award in a celebration marking the 20th anniversary of the Baileys women’s prize. The chairs and judges from previous years picked Adichie’s book as the best fiction work in a decade.

Front-Page Femmes

Artist Poppy Jackson sat naked on a London rooftop in a performance piece. Comments received from the media “prove why artwork presenting the female body from a woman’s perspective is so important.”

Russian philanthropist and art collector Dasha Zhukova gives one million dollars to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a new visiting artist program.

Cynthia Daignault traveled around the U.S. for six months, documenting the landscape every 25 miles. Her resulting work, Light Atlas, contains 360 paintings from her journey.

The Victoria & Albert Museum declined a trove of Margaret Thatcher’s clothes for their collection. The Telegraph says the museum is “ignoring the social, economic and political messages of clothes.”

Shannon Goff re-creates her grandfather’s 1979 Lincoln Continental Mark V—out of cardboard.

Australian artist and Holocaust survivor Judy Cassab died at the age of 95. Cassab was the first woman to win the Archibald portrait prize twice.

ArtInfo interviews French jewelry designer Victoire de Castellane after she won the Visionaries! Award by the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD).

Lost interviews with arts philanthropist Peggy Guggenheim are brought to light in a new biographical film.

Vulture shares their list of 100 women directors Hollywood should be hiring.

A new documentary focuses on the life of Australian Black Panther, artist, and activist Marlene Cummins.

Conductor and pianist Alondra de la Parra is the first female chief conductor and musical director of one of Australia’s three largest orchestras.

Mary Testa plays Barbara Bush in the chamber musical First Daughter Suite.

Shows We Want to See

In her first U.S. solo exhibition, video artist Rachel Rose explores the cosmos and attempts to “transport viewers into the void.”

Kara Walker’s latest exhibition, Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First, is on view in London. Hyperallergic reviews the extent to which Walker’s works “and the racism they illuminate, are steeped in America’s unique history.”

Featuring work by 45 artists, Modern Scottish Women shows that the interests of 19th-century woman artists were “broad and unflinching.”

Lynda Benglis: Water Sources at Storm King Art Center presents large outdoor sculptures and an installation of smaller works which “play at rituality and point to a chimera of ruin.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.