Artist profile: Kara Walker

‘Everything that I do starts with an effort in recalling who I am.
Crawling through the clutter of who I am supposed to be; who somebody else
thinks I am. External constructions of race and gender and height. The more
clutter gets added to the pile from outside, the harder it is for me to get to
the core of myself.’
– Kara Walker, 2014

Kara
Walker was born in 1969 in Stockton, California and grew up in the South where her father
worked at Georgia State University. She is best known for her works which
explore issues of race and gender, the American Civil War and slavery.

Like
much of Kara Walker’s work, this print titled ‘Restraint’ explores the
experience of black slaves in the southern states of America before the Civil
War. The female figure wears an iron bridle of a type that was used to punish
and humiliate slaves, preventing them from speaking, swallowing, lying down or
escaping. The silhouette style is characteristic of Walker’s work. It recalls a
style of ‘polite’ profile portraiture that was popular in popular in Europe and
America during the era of slavery.

For
many European settlers, the voyage to the ‘New World’ promised opportunity and
freedom. For enslaved Africans, the journey meant the opposite. In this print a
slave ship is carried to shore by other-worldly hands. A plantation owner and a
slave on land offer a glimpse of the life to come. Beneath the waves, the
silhouette of a black woman brings to mind the many people who perished on the
dangerous voyage. The beauty of the aquatint is at odds with the shocking
subject.

Slavery
was a key issue in the American Civil War (1861–1865). The Confederacy of southern
states fought to preserve the institution and the Union of free states fought
to end it. The contemporary illustration reproduced in this print depicts the
aftermath of the 1864 Battle of Jonesborough, Georgia, which facilitated the
Union’s ultimate victory. It is superimposed with the head of a black slave
whose freedom depended on the outcome of the conflict.

Trace
changing ideas of American identity over the past six decades in our major
exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present (9 March – 18 June
2017).

Exhibition
sponsored by Morgan Stanley. Supported by the Terra Foundation for American
Art.

Restraint. Etching with sugar
aquatint, 2009. © Kara Walker.

no
world
from
An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters.
Aquatint with spit-bite and
drypoint, 2010. © Kara Walker.

Confederate Prisoners Being Conducted from
Jonesborough to Atlanta from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War
(Annotated).

Offset lithograph
with screenprint, 2005. © Kara Walker.

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