Kara Walker (b. 1969) abandoned oil painting in the early 1990s after realising she associated it with power — ‘a kind of masculine power,’ she said, ‘that goes hand in hand with exploring new worlds and colonising them’.
What, after all, did oil painting have to do with her narrative as a black woman artist? Her response was to replace oil with gouache, and begin making paper cut-outs, finding satisfaction in the void created during the cutting process.
Walker was prompted to research the history of silhouettes in America, and quickly began to see the links between these images and historical discussions around race, intelligence and physiognomy. She read historical tracts written by the Klu Klux Klan and racist science fiction in order to try to understand the minds of its creators. It was not long before that void ‘had become completely filled with stuff’.
‘Kara Walker fearlessly tackles some of the most complex issues we face today’ — Frances Morris, Director Tate Modern
Walker’s art, which includes nightmarish drawings, prints, shadow puppets and murals, has been addressing these racially charged issues since she graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. Now, as one of the most important artists working in the United States, and during a time when white supremacy rhetoric is returning to US politics, her lyrical and potent reflections on stereotypes, sex and violence and power seem more pertinent than ever.
The vivid painting Four Idioms on Negro Art #4: Primitivism, which set a new world auction record for the artist when it sold in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 25 June, is just such a picture. Executed in 2015, it forms part of a series of large-scale works that satirise the West’s perceived ‘idioms’ of African America art — idioms that include folk art, primitivism and graffiti; idioms that Walker sees as patronising and two-dimensional.
The painting has a supernatural, dream-like quality to it, and depicts three figures in an ecstatic ménage à trois while being aggressively brutalised by a policeman in riot gear. ‘She adds electrifying colour to the mix, too,’ says Christian Albu, Senior Specialist in Post-War and Contemporary Art. ‘Using flashe paint, tempera and watercolour, she creates a striking fresco-like composition framed against a cobalt-blue night sky.’
At more than three metres across — a similar size to a mural — the work is impressively confrontational. Walker has discussed scale in the past, saying that the size of her work often embodies the enormous weight of the contradictions at play.
This was certainly the case with her monumental installation A Subtlety, commissioned by Creative Time and exhibited in the defunct Domino Sugar Refining Plant in Brooklyn in 2014, which saw her 10-metre-high sphinx made from sugar challenge issues around slavery and the sugar and molasses trade.
Frances Morris, Tate Modern’s director, says Walker ‘fearlessly tackles some of the most complex issues we face today’, and later this year the artist will be confronting, or rather filling, another immense void: the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern for the 2019 Hyundai commission.
Details of the project are yet to be revealed, although Morris sees it as a ‘hugely exciting proposition’, noting Walker’s ‘powerful directness’ in terms of how the artist might respond to ‘the wider context of London and British history’.
For Walker, who was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, it will be an opportunity to stir up the waters of the island nation’s complex history with race. What emerges from the shadows is sure to be revealing.