7 Quotes From Artist Kara Walker on Her Birthday

The artist turns 46 today.

Kara Walker
Photo: Sari Goodfriend.

Almost nothing disrupts the comfort of a mainstream white art audience more than a discussion of sexuality, violence, and race. When a black female artist explores these topics there is a faint but unmistakable shudder that will ripple through the crowd. This moment of shared embarrassment and denial is exactly the reaction artist Kara Walker is looking for when she presents her work to the public.

Because of her discomfiting take on race relations, Walker has carved herself a sweet spot in an art world that simultaneously deflects criticism and receives the horror of history with what is a confused delight. Her most recent work, an enormous sugar sculpture of a nude black woman in the form of the Sphinx titled A Subtlety (2014) at the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn, demonstrated how audiences take to themes that haunt the American psyche.  They respond by gawking and giggling, subconsciously avoiding the pain and truth embedded in the medium.

The overt themes in A Subtlety assaults the audiences’ five senses. Walker continues to center her work around difficult themes and accepts strong reactions as important parts of this ongoing dialogue. “It’s interesting that as soon as you start telling the story of racism, you start reliving the story,” Walker told the Whitney. “You keep creating a monster that swallows you. But as long as there’s Darfur, as long as there are people saying ‘Hey, you don’t belong here’ to others, it seems realistic to continue investigating the terrain…”

In celebration of the iconoclastic artist’s 46th birthday, here are seven quotes to remind us of why her work continues to inspire and disturb audiences worldwide.

Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014)

Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014).
Photo: Jason Wyche, Courtesy Creative Time.

On human behavior
“Human behavior is so murky and violent and messed-up and inappropriate. And I think my work draws on that. It comes from there. It comes from responding to situations like that, and it pulls it out of an audience.”

On realizing how she should be creating art
“I just sort of burst. And that’s when I realized that everything I was doing, painting-wise, was just a lie and a cover. There was something in me that was never going to be relevant unless I sort of pulled back my skin and the skin of painting that I was doing and looked at it for what it was.”

On her critics
“It’s beautiful, because to dismiss what I do, it basically does what I do: creates a stereotype where once there was a person. Uses all of the accouterments of that’s person’s humanity—their skin, their hair, their social life—to construct another character. The only thing that is missing is the signature, saying, this is my piece. This is my Kara Walker.”


Kara Walker, Gone, An Historical Romance of Civil War As it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of Young Negress and Her Heart (1994). Photo: MoMA.org

Kara Walker, Gone, An Historical Romance of Civil War As it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of Young Negress and Her Heart (1994).
Photo: MoMA.org

On creating silhouettes
“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.”

On how she creates work
“I do what I am feeling and what I’m feeling is monstrous. And I do it in the nicest possible way.”

On artists
“The artist is like an abuser of everything, picture, history, and other people.”

On the world
“My father always said ‘It’s all possible, and good things will come if you work towards them.’ The things I remember my mom sort of intuiting under the radar were, like, ‘well, life ain’t fair.’ So as a child I opted for my father’s world view with a kind of freaked-out understanding of there being something darker at work.”


Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014, detail).
Via @creativetimenyc/Instagram.

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