Kara Walker (American, born 1969)
linoleum cut on cream wove paper
46 1/2 x 60 1/2 in. (118.11 x 153.67 cm)
Collection of Alvin Hall. © Kara Walker
In the 1990s, Kara Walker revived the Victorian art of the cut-paper silhouette, a popular form of nineteenth-century portraiture. Her characters—ranging from enslavers to enslaved children—are often shown engaging in taboo acts of sex, violence, and debasement. She describes the semi–nude figure in this print as “your essentialist-token slave maiden in midair.” Without any background or context, this figure seems to be helplessly falling through a timeless void. While she has been both celebrated and criticized for appropriating negative stereotypes of African Americans, Walker seeks to reconcile with a painful, violent, and traumatic past through her artwork. Her surrealistic figures, which often force incongruent elements into uncomfortably tense proximity, refuse to resolve the horrific historical and psychological circumstances of slavery’s era, leaving us to wonder whether some resolution between racism’s past and present is even possible.