In the 1990s, American artist Kara Walker revived the art of the cut-paper silhouette, popular in nineteenth-century portraiture. Walker transformed this medium to suit her more transgressive aims, using the spare elegance of the black forms to depict scatological and sexually explicit tableaux set in the Civil War South.
Walker uses humor and horror to address cultural issues of race, gender, and power. Her characters are drawn from stereotypes and engage in taboo acts of sex, violence, and debasement. African/American, a linoleum-cut print, conflates lyrical lines and disturbing content to elicit a range of emotions and reactions. Walker described the seminude figure as "your essentialist-token slave maiden in midair."
Gallery label from 2006.
Kara Walker uses both humor and horror in her work to address cultural issues of race, gender, and power. Emerging on the art scene in the 1990s, she single-handedly revived an outdated medium, the cut paper silhouette, which was a form popular in the nineteenth century. In the hands of this young African-American artist, the silhouette is anything but a polite bourgeois portrait. Instead, she has adapted it to suit her own transgressive purposes, using the spare elegance of these black forms to depict tableaux set in the Civil War south, which she installs directly on the white walls of the gallery. With a cast of characters that includes stereotypes and caricatures engaged in the most taboo acts of sex, violence, and debasement, Walker's work resonates with a complexity of conflicting emotions and reactions. The work is confrontational, scatalogical, and explicitly sexual, yet often displays a good-naturedness and knowing sense of humor. Paper, in guises from silhouettes to drawings and sketches, forms the core of Walker's work. She became seriously involved with printmaking shortly after finishing the graduate program at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. She has worked in intaglio mediums, screenprint, and linoleum cut and has collaborated with Chicago's Landfall Press, known for publishing artists outside the New York art world, many of whom have a conceptual or politically oriented focus. African/American successfully captures the qualities that make her silhouettes so affecting, with the impact of its graphic black-and-white imagery and the tension arising from the elegant design conflated with disturbing content. This nude or semi-nude figure is representative of those depicted by Walker and is described by her as "your essentialist-token slave maiden in midair."
Publication excerpt from an essay by Sarah Suzuki, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 234.