Kara Walker is tired. In advance of her exhibition that opens this week in Chelsea, the artist — one of America’s most daring, acclaimed, and occasionally reviled — has circulated a communiqué declaring her exhaustion. “I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point,” she writes. “But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.’ Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche.” Of her new work, made this summer, she cautions: “It’s not exhaustive, activist, or comprehensive in any way.”
Walker’s interventions breed reactions, and this was no exception. “Kara Walker: Art Can’t Solve the Nation’s Racial Problems,” the New York Times headlined (before replacing that with the calmer, more accurate claim that Walker “promises art, not answers”). Meanwhile, the first polemic landed at Hyperallergic, where Lyric Prince, an artist in Virginia, argued that Walker was “painting herself as a martyr” and “subtly discouraging young artists…from fighting the ongoing whitelash to the Obama years.” Instead, Prince proposed, “If Walker is so tired of standing up, then she can just take a seat.”
None of this will have surprised the 47-year-old artist herself. The title of the show, at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery, is a 200-word opus — long even by Walker’s standards of wordplay — that preempts the typical responses. “Art Historians will wonder whether the work represents a Departure or a Continuum,” the title reads in part. “Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media.”
Walker could never be confused for a movement activist. When she broke out in 1994 — and received a MacArthur “genius” award three years later, aged only 27 — she drew censure from a cadre of important Black artists, particularly women, who found nothing in her work to uplift the race. Her black paper silhouettes, exquisitely cut and applied to white walls at grand scale, presented abstracted antebellum vistas rife with racial and sexual degradation. Sculptor Betye Saar led a letter-writing campaign, calling Walker “young and foolish” and her work “very sexist and derogatory.” An older Black artist, Howardena Pindell, called it “visual terrorism.” Walker snarled back in her art, in particular with a 1997 watercolor-and-pencil series titled “Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?” that included long text passages (“I mean — you can’t please everyone and why should you anyway!?”). The same series included frank dream descriptions and sketches of figures, often Black women in stereotypical “mammy” and “free” depictions — the contradictory concept of the “emancipated Negress” is Walker’s central dialectic — in situations that were sometimes pornographic.
Walker’s art has evolved: The silhouettes are her most famous device, but they have varied — white on black, in shades of gray, collaged onto color canvases, in three-dimensional steel-cut sculptures, projected onto the wall, staged in short films. She has worked in color and in a more figurative vein, and from miniature to full-room scale. But Walker’s core concerns have remained stable: repressed racial imaginaries, the predicament of freedom given the weight of history, the sexualized Black woman grappling with the revulsions and desires that power scrambles and skews. Walker’s work finds her in a state of constant, conflicted awareness of her position as an artist anointed by the establishment yet abhorred by its subtending force, white supremacy.
In New York, where Walker lives, her work found an expanded audience in 2014, when her first venture into public art drew some 130,000 viewers to the now-demolished Domino Sugar plant, in Williamsburg. She raised a giant sphinx, made of sugar, marked with a mammy’s headscarf, and sexualized with a prominent vulva jutting rearward, under which some visitors posed for pictures. Nearby, a detachment of small molasses-men melted in the warehouse heat. The work was historical comment at a site where sugar grown on violent plantations entered the U.S. market. Walker’s critics found the display exploitative, but to her, the discomfort was the point. “Human behavior is so mucky and violent and messed-up and inappropriate,” Walker told Carolina Miranda in the Los Angeles Times. “And I think my work draws on that.”
Like the revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who treated both torturers and the tortured during the Algerian War, Walker knows that oppression degrades victim and perpetrator alike; her work explores, in the American setting, this terrain. She has been as frank about her history of white lovers as she has been meticulous in her study of white racial pathology. She was a teen in Stone Mountain, Georgia, where the massive rock face carries a bas-relief of Confederate heroes; recently, she told Doreen St. Félix in New York magazine, she realized that “this monument was the biggest influence on my work.” She references not just antebellum life but the continuum of Black freedom dreams denied by white psychosis. In preparing a 2013 exhibition in Chicago, “Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!,” she dove into white-nationalist literature, including the paranoid race-war fantasy The Turner Diaries. She was exploring, she told Artforum, the problem of “an ‘author’ inserting herself into a text whose only purpose is to destroy her.”
What sounded macabre then rings as prescient now. “A pattern is developing, a civilian war that threatens to shatter our collective sense of belonging,” Walker wrote last year in the catalog for an exhibition in Cleveland. “Some terrible thing is happening and we cannot figure out how it got this bad.” In fact, she has likely known all along. Today, white nationalism and Confederate nostalgia are surging; the public discourse is splintered and atomized, overrun with self-confirming fantasy; the ruling clique runs on vulgarity, no longer bothering to conceal its racial and sexual bloodthirst. In retrospect, Walker has long warned us of today’s engulfing grotesque. The culture has come to her.