Kara Walker Shakes Up the Art World Again

Let’s face it. Art and history are fields dominated by a privileged, white, heterosexual, cisgender, Eurocentric, male perspective. When I took an art history class my senior year of high school, I was confronted with this reality daily, as most of the art we viewed was made by artists who fit the above description. Although I had a wonderful teacher who showed us work from artists of diverse backgrounds and although the AP curriculum has been changed to include more global art, the inequality was obvious. Therefore, it’s always exciting for me to learn about artists who break the art world’s systemized oppression and choose to make a statement about it through their work. It’s even more exciting when I get to see their art in person. So when I heard that the Gund Gallery Associates were taking a field to see Kara Walker’s new exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, I may have leaped up and down a few times. Kara Walker is a black, female artist from California who is best known for her use of silhouettes to expose dark truths about the history and continuation of African American oppression. Basically, she’s an idol to intersectional feminists. I first came across her work in art history class when we looked at her piece Darkytown Rebellion. In this piece, Walker uses caricatures of African Americans from historical texts like the American Primitive Painting to make a powerful statement about how our portrayal of certain groups influences how we view the real people they represent. Walker’s use of dark silhouettes and shifting lights evoke a sense of horror surrounding the traumatic past and present of black life in America.​ Walker’s newest exhibit, The Ecstasy of St. Kara, uses the same blend of history and contemporary issues as well as an emphasis on line and shape to delve further into current racism. The title of the exhibit is a reference to Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, in which Saint Teresa experiences a moment of spiritual enlightenment with a suggestion of sexual pleasure. Instead of reflecting ecstasy, the title establishes the complicated relationship between Christianity and black culture as biblical stories underline the hardships faced by African Americans yet the religion itself has been used to justify slavery and other forms of oppression. The title also suggests a look at the role of women in history and contemporary society. Already, I was hooked by the concept.

When I walked in, the exhibit almost immediately brought me to tears. In a divergence from her usual silhouettes, Walker created a variety of large, predominantly black and white drawings depicting various scenes of agony. Per usual, many of the forms in the exhibit lacked a significant amount of detail, giving each of the characters in her art an ominous quality. The simple colors and shapes evoked a strong emotional response in me as I saw horrific historical scenes like that in The Last Memory of Birdie Africa, which depicts the 1985 bombing of a MOVE house in West Philadelphia. Even without the historical context, Walker’s work creates an undeniable sense of pain through her chaotic forms. These jumbled and partially covered shapes make the viewer question what stories are lost to history as a result of society’s denial.​ Walker also references the Black Lives Matter movement in her piece BLM which places the movement’s acronym on a tomb below a woman’s head. I was especially struck by this piece, as it made me think not only about the victims of police brutality, but about the people left behind in the wake of their deaths. I thought about the mothers, daughters, wives and sisters who have lost loved ones to a cause they are powerless to control due to their gender, class, and race. I found that each piece made me consider a new aspect of religion, race and gender in modern life. The exhibit also gave me insight into the world Kara Walker inhabits—one where her race is a potential cause for murder and her gender is a potential cause for harassment.

Despite these obstacles, Walker has created a successful career in a field mainly reserved for the very people she criticizes in her art. She is empowering herself while also raising awareness for those who do not have a voice. Kara Walker is truly an inspiration and I cannot wait to see what she will do to shake up the art world next.


Image Credit: 1, 2, 3, 4