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Preserving Cultural Narratives with Multimedia

Kara Walker in front of her work.

Kara Walker is among one of the most prolific and complex American artists of her generation. She has gained national and international attention for her various works of art, and the variety of multi media she uses to create her groundbreaking pieces. 

Born in Stockton, California in 1969, Walker stayed there until she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Atlanta College of Art. After that she carried out a Masters of Fine Art at the Rhode Island School of Design. It wasn’t until 1994 that she made her debut at the Drawing Center in New York during a group exhibition titled Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. This work featured large scaled silhouetted figures that were engaged in violent and sexual interactions. The turbulent imagery critiques historical narratives of slavery and on-going ethnic stereotypes. This piece would foreshadow Walkers future as an artist, as well as her ability to convey powerful messages through multimedia. 

Kara Walker, Gone, Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart
Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.
For more information about this piece and source: nyclovesnyc

Throughout Walkers career, she experimented and utilized various forms of media. Her early career saw the use of cut-paper silhouettes, exploring the nature of race representation as well as the history of figuration and narrative in contemporary art. By the 2000s she started experimenting with film, making 16mm films and video installations that set her silhouettes in motion. By 2014 she had moved to sculpture, creating one of the largest sculptures constructed out of sugar. 

I had a catharsis looking at early American varieties of silhouette cuttings. What I recognize, besides narrative and historicity and racism, was very physical displacement: the paradox of removing a form from a blank surface that in turn creates a black hole. I was struck by the irony of so many of my concerns being addressed: blank/black. Hole/Whole, Shadow/Substance.

Kara Walker on her Silhouette Figures

Though the forms of media in which Walker uses to create her art vary greatly, the subject and center of her works are always critiquing the history of African American people in America. Her cut-out and film works with the silhouettes all reference the history of slavery in America, as well as contemporary events such as the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. She uses her art-work to remind viewers that images of black bodies in pain continue to be a American spectacle. She pairs unusual and striking media with a subject matter that is difficult and deeply personal to many, advocating and educating generations to come on the history of cultures. 

By 2014 Walker had experimented with resin small scaled sculptures. But A Subtlety, also known as The Marvelous Sugar Baby was her first ever large-scaled, site-specific sculpture. Commissioned to be inside of Brooklyn’s legendary Domino Sugar Factory, it pays homage to the unpaid and overworked workers of a sugar factory that was once bustling with business. This work consisted of a monumental Sphinxlike woman with caricatured features and an Aunt Jemima kerchief. The colossal sculpture was made out of cast sugar and resin, commenting on the history of refined sugar, a commodity that was once seen as a luxury but was harvested by slaves on Caribbean sugar cane plantations. 

Kara Walker, Sugar Baby, History, Diversity
Source: LA Times

Walkers use of multimedia in her artwork helps us as an audience and her viewers understand the meaning of her work. She describes her media as “essential to the meaning,” it is a metaphor for the stereotype of her culture and race, and helps bring awareness to the ongoing oppression of many cultures in contemporary society. Her works are multi-layered, revealing the meaning through her own form of storytelling. 

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