Artist Forces Racism out of the Shadows

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Kara Walker

Artist Kara Walker, 37, tackles racism, slavery and oppression using the genteel 18th-century art of cut-paper silhouettes. Jaya Howey hide caption

itoggle caption Jaya Howey

Artist Kara Walker succeeds in turning horrifying subjects into something beautiful, poetic and even witty, using the genteel art of cut-paper silhouettes.

The first-ever major museum survey of the 37-year-old artist's work, "Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love," is currently showing at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Walker dredges up stereotyped images: Southern belles with hourglass waists and flowing hair and black girls with fat lips and short, little braids.

"I have no interest in making a work that doesn't elicit a feeling," she says.

Her works — created using paper, a grease pencil and X-Acto knife — are are a throwback to the silhouettes made popular in the 18th and 19th centuries: profiles of sweet cherubic faces in black against a clean, white background

Walker has turned the art form on its head with incredible dexterity. In fact, her work goes straight to the essence of the racial divide and splays it open, says Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art.

"We would prefer to accept a sort of negotiated truce about race relations in this country, which are not good," Storr says. "And what she does is she destabilizes this negotiated truce and says, 'Actually, there's still trouble out there.'"

Walker also uses a measure of humor to get people to linger in front of images that might otherwise repel them.

The artist's work has drawn crowds of blacks and whites, to the point that she's been a lightning rod for heated debates.

Some African-Americans worry that Walker is actually playing into the hands of racists and reinforcing stereotypes, says Thelma Golden, curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Whether viewers see her work as historical depiction or absurd exaggeration, Walker says she wants the art to compel them to explore their own notions of "us" and "them."

"I don't want to create a full-on bamboozled minstrel show. I'd like to have it sit somewhere in between, where we all feel implicated in this continuing drama."

"Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love," runs through May 13th at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. From there it will tour to Paris, New York City and Los Angeles.

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