Kara Walker is a contemporary African-American visual artist who has achieved unparalleled global success. Her cut-paper silhouettes and animations, exhibited and owned by museums across the United States and abroad, explores race, gender, sexuality, violence and identity to amplify the dysfunctions propagated by slavery.
She is known for her black and white cut-paper silhouettes of slave masters and mammies that evoke the racism and exploitation of women during the antebellum years.
Some of her early influences include Andy Warhol, with his omnivorous eye and moral distance; and Robert Colescott, who inserted cartoonish Dixie sharecroppers into his version of Vincent van Gogh’s Dutch peasant cottages.
Walker was born in Stockton, California in 1969. The family relocated to her father, Larry Walker’s native Georgia after he accepted a position at Georgia State University when she was 13. Mr. Walker was a formally educated artist, professor, and administrator. Her mother worked as an administrative assistant.
She recalls one of her fondest childhood memories with her father.
“One of my earliest memories involves sitting on my dad’s lap in his studio in the garage of our house and watching him draw. I remember thinking: ‘I want to do that, too,’ and I pretty much decided then and there at age 2½ or 3 that I was an artist just like Dad.” —Kara Walker
She received her BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994.
Walker first came to art world attention in 1994 with her mural “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.” This unusual cut-paper silhouette mural, presenting an old-timey south filled with sex and slavery was an instant hit.
At the age of 27 she became the second youngest recipient of the coveted MacArthur “genius” grant and has had solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
In 2006, she returned to the imagery of the black body in “After the Deluge,” a reflection on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
In 2007 Walker Art Center exhibition Kara Walker: My Complement, My Oppressor, My Enemy, My Love was her first full-scale U.S. museum survey.
One of Ms. Walker’s largest works, is intended to be a tribute to the African-American women involved in the 19th century sugar trade. The “Marvelous Sugar Baby” is her first sculpture and unlike anything she’s done before.
“The 75-foot sugar-covered sphinx drew more than 130,000 viewers during its two-month run at the Domino sugar factory, with an average attendance of 5,000 a day on the weekends it was open. The last two-days attendance surged to 10,000 a day while “A Subtlety,” was on display.
“In some ways, doing a project like this is a bit of a nose-thumbing at detractors, naysayers, haters,” Ms. Walker said of her Domino sphinx. With her earlier work, even her supporters conceded that the recurring antihero of Ms. Walker’s work — known as “the Negress” — had never had true control of her fate. But with Ms. Walker’s Negress-as-sphinx, that underdog may have at last become the unbeatable overcat.
Walker currently lives in New York, where she has been a professor of visual arts in the MFA program at Columbia University since 2001.