Kara Walker

The Power of Silhouettes

Kara Walker is a contemporary African-American artist best known for her panoramic paper-cut silhouettes. She was born in 1969 in California but grew up in Georgia. Walker pushes a flat aesthetic, similar to Andy Warhol’s, into topics of American racial identity. Her work is controversial, highly sexualized, and violent. She prods provocative subjects in a medium that is traditionally considered delicate, often used for portraits. However, the emotional reactions to Walker’s silhouettes are not nostalgic, but evocative. TIME Magazine stated that “her silhouettes throw themselves against the wall and don’t blink.”

Kara Walker

When 3-year-old Walker sat on her father’s knee watching him draw, she decided to be an artist. After receiving a BFA from Georgia State University, she pursued an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. There, she began exploring issues of race. After graduation, the exhibition of her first mural, entitled Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, was an instant success, garnering her international acclaim.

Kara Walker. Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994.

Walker explores relationships between black and white people, especially in the antebellum south, and especially between white men and black women. Her personal relationships with white men act as some influence, but she also considers the violent history of all Americans in her works. Most of her pieces are room-sized murals, but Walker also explores how film, painting, and sculpture address how Americans look at racism with a “soft focus.”

Kara Walker. Slavery! Slavery!, 1997.

Kara Walker. Slavery! Slavery!, 1997.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, 2014.

Throughout the 1990s, many African-American artists and viewers protested Walker’s works and style. It is argued her work reinforces stereotypes, degrades black identity, and regresses the image of African-Americans. One mural was protested so thoroughly in Detroit in 1999 that it was removed, with a promise to be reinstated at a later time. Viewers complained about a controversial drawing at a New Jersey library, causing it to be temporarily covered.

Currently, Kara Walker continues to create thought-provoking works of art that explore issues of race, gender, and power. She has also been involved in various teaching positions, including as a professor of visual arts at Columbia University, and has been recognized with numerous awards for her contributions to the art world. Her work will undoubtedly continue to inspire and challenge us for years to come.


“I have no interest in making a work that doesn’t elicit a feeling.” – Kara Walker

“Once you open up the Pandora’s box of race and gender… you’re never done.” – Kara Walker

“As a child, I was subjected to a lot of spaghetti Westerns and hated them. I wanted the Indians to win – or just not be so sad!” – Kara Walker

“Challenging and highlighting abusive power dynamics in our culture is my goal; replicating them is not.” – Kara Walker

“I trust my hand. If I go into a space with a roll of paper, I can make a work, some kind of work, and feel pretty satisfied.” – Kara Walker

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