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Kara Walker
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Stockton, Calif.
Known for her large black paper silhouettes depicting the interaction of slaves and masters in the Antebellum South, often in scenes of violence, Kara Walker explores issues of race, identity and sexuality in her art. She is also a painter, printmaker, filmmaker and the designer of large-scale sculptures. Born in Stockton, Calif., in 1969, her father Larry, a painter and collagist, was then a professor of art at the University of the Pacific and later the Chair of the Art Department. In 1983, he accepted a professorship at Georgia State University in Atlanta and the family moved to Georgia. Walker received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence in 1994. While at RISD, she discovered early American cutout silhouettes, which became the vehicle for much of her art. She first exhibited her silhouettes in New York City at the Drawing Center’s “Selections 1994” exhibition that opened on September 10, 1994. Her thirteen-by-fifty foot work of large black cutouts installed on the gallery walls, “Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b'tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart” (1994), includes antebellum figures engaged in coupling and violent interactions. It drew on “Gone With The Wind,” the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949). The work is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. A critical success, this exhibition led to her representation by art dealer Brent Sikkema, whose gallery Sikkema Jenkins & Co. continues to represent her, and to inclusion of her work in multiple solo and group exhibitions. In 1996, she married RISD professor Klaus Bürgel, and lived and worked in Providence; they divorced in 2010. The MacArthur Foundation awarded Walker its fellowship in 1997; she was the youngest person to have received the “genius award.” The MacArthur Foundation award and the nature of her art led a group of artists to attack her for portraying racial stereotypes. Betye Saar (b.1926) tried to organize a boycott of Walker’s work, while other black intellectuals came to Walker’s defense. Harvard University organized a 1998 exhibition of her work and a symposium about use of racial stereotypes in art. That year Walker designed the stage curtain for the Vienna State Opera House’s 1998-99 season. In 2002, Walker and her family moved to Brooklyn and she began teaching at Columbia University. She represented the United States at the 2002 São Paulo (Brazil) Biennale with her a 26-meter long installation “Slavery! Slavery!” (1997). In the early 2000s, Walker began creating films using silhouettes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, asked her to curate a 2006 exhibition featuring her work and other objects in its collection. The exhibition, “Kara Walker at the Met: After the Deluge,” was her reaction to the racial inequities exposed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans with works depicting water and its impact on African Americans. The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, organized her first large survey exhibition in 2007, “Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love;” which traveled to museums in Paris, New York, and Los Angeles. Walker’s series of fifteen lithographs, “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)” (2005), with silhouettes printed over enlarged reproductions of images from the 1866 “Harpers’s” publication, was first shown at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Mass., in 2007 and has traveled to museums in thirteen other American cities as of this writing. Another traveling exhibition of her works, “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power,” opened at the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, in 2013 and went on to six other museums. Walker’s first sculpture created for a particular site was the immense “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” a Sphinx-like woman wearing a kerchief, built with polystyrene blocks covered by white sugar and surrounded by thirteen boys made of brown resin or sugar, installed in 2014 in a warehouse at the former Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn. She was the stage director and the set and costume designer for a production of Vincenzo Bellini’s (1801-1835) opera “Norma” at La Fenice Opera House, Venice, performed in connection with the 2015 Venice Art Biennale. Later that year Walker began a five-year term as Tepper Chair in Visual Arts at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. She received the 2019 Hyundai Commission to install a work in London’s Tate Modern museum Turbine Hall. Walker designed a monumental fountain, “Fons Americanus,” inspired by the Queen Victoria Memorial that sits in front of Buckingham Palace. The fountain explores the transatlantic slave trade and the histories of Africa, the Americas and Europe. Among her many honors, Walker has received honorary doctorates from the Rhode Island School of Design (2006) and the California College of the Arts, Oakland (2009). She was the Roy Lichtenstein Artist in Residence at the American Academy in Rome in 2016. Walker is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2012), the National Academy of Design (2017) and the American Philosophical Society (2018) and an Honorary Academician of the Royal Academy of Arts, London (2019). Walker lives and works in New York City. (TNB 2/2020) Selected bibliography: Vergne, Philippe, et al. Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. Exhibition catalog. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2007.