Artist Forces Racism out of the Shadows Artist Kara Walker is known for life-sized silhouettes created from freehand drawings. Cutouts were used in Victorian times as portraits of quiet repose. Walker's silhouettes depict the violence of slavery.
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Artist Forces Racism out of the Shadows

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Artist Forces Racism out of the Shadows

Artist Forces Racism out of the Shadows

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Now a story about an artist who uses simple construction paper to explore a complex part of American life. Her name is Kara Walker. She's 37 years old and she uses silhouettes to tackle the legacy of slavery and racism. Critics have called her work beautiful and grotesque, humorous and tragic. You can see some examples at npr.org, our Web site.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis - and by the way, no relation to Kara Walker - is currently presenting the first-ever career survey of Walker's work. Minnesota Public Radio's Marianne Combs reports.

MARIANNE COMBS: As you walk into the exhibition, the first image you'll see is of a woman in colonial dress. It's a silhouette made of black construction paper that's been waxed to the wall. The woman appears to be leaping into the air, her heels kicking together and her arms raised high above her in ecstatic joy. but on closer inspection you see that one hand holds a long razor, and what you thought were decorative details are actually geysers of blood spurting from her wrists. The piece is called simply "Cut." Walker says the goal with all of her work is to elicit an emotional reaction.

Ms. KARA WALKER (Artist): I've seen people glaze over when they're confronted with racism, and there's nothing more, you know, damning and demeaning to having any kind of ideology than people just walking the walk and saying what they're supposed to say and nodding, and nobody feels anything. I have no interest in making work that doesn't elicit a feeling; not just a mood, a real visceral like oh you mean me.

COMBS: The artist sits in a small dark room of the Walker Art Center. On a screen one of her silent short films plays over and over. In it, a young black woman in the antebellum South is given control of the whip, and she takes out her own sexual revenge on white men.

The characters are shadow puppets. You can see Walker in the background, manipulating them with sticks and wires. It's an unsettling story in which no one wins.

Ms. WALKER: And I know that there's a great need for things to become clear in the end, but I actually think that kind of jittery feeling of uncertainty and, yeah, just a lack of clarity about who you are, how you define yourself, how you define yourself against the person who's next to you in the room watching the same thing with you is extremely vital.

COMBS: Kara Walker was born and raised in Stockton, California, but at the age of 12 moved to Atlanta, Georgia. She left a place where her race didn't seem to matter for a place where it did matter, on several levels. Her family's move coincided with the Atlanta child murders, a two-year period during 29 black youths were found dead.

Dean of the Yale School of Art Robert Storr says the artist's work goes straight to the essence of the racial divide and splays it open.

Mr. ROBERT STORR (Dean, Yale School of Art): We would prefer to accept a sort of negotiated truce about race relations in this country, which are not good, and what she does is she destabilizes that negotiated truce and says actually there's still trouble out there, and I can look at it, I can laugh at it, I can smile at it. You can do that with me, but you can also know that it's real trouble and it's not over.

COMBS: It's what Walker calls the chasm, a well of stereotyped images that linger in our subconscious. From it Walker dredges up Southern belles with hourglass waists and flowing hair and what she called picaninnies, black girls with fat lips and short little braids. She creates them using an artform normally associated with genteel images of domesticity.

Silhouettes were popular at the turn of the last century, placing profiles or sweet cherubic faces in black against a clean white background. Using just paper, a grease pencil and an X-acto knife, Storr says Walker has turned the artform on its head with incredible dexterity.

Mr. STORR: Because you have one cut to make, you can't unmake it. Because the tool itself if very tricky, you have to sculpt a figure with no room for error in great detail before striking, and then when you strike you have to know exactly where you're going and what you're doing.

COMBS: Storr says Walker is literally exploring the color line, cutting it anew with her own hands. She portrays blacks as living in the shadow of whites, and yet their silhouette existence is co-dependent. She also uses a measure of humor to get people to linger a little longer in front of images that might otherwise repel them.

Walker's work has drawn crowds, both blacks and whites, to the point that she's been a lightning rod for some heated debates. Thelma Golden is curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. She says some older African-Americans worry Walker is actually playing into the hands of racists and reinforcing stereotypes.

Ms. THELMA GOLDEN (Curator, Studio Museum): And the real feeling is that these works are being consumed by a general public who perhaps do not understand the subtleties around these ideas and see them quite literally as images to be understood as not just a reality of the truth, and some people see them as being derogatory for that reason.

COMBS: Critics may have some reason to believe the general public will not get the irony. On a Saturday afternoon Christine Rump(ph) sits on a staircase in the middle of the exhibition, waiting for her friends, and she looks a little bewildered.

Ms. CHRISTINE RUMP (Patron, Walker Art Center): Her storyline is not one that I can relate to, so I don't know. It seems like to me she has, you know, issues that she's dealing with.

COMBS: At least Rump has the nerve to voice her opinion. Many people looking at the work declined to comment, seemingly fearful of saying the wrong thing about such a racially and sexually charged body of work.

One man admits he doesn't want to be the white male in the Kara Walker story, but museum-goer Vickie Radden(ph) says talking about the work is the whole point. While Kara Walker's art may see like a surreal depiction of life in the antebellum South, Radden says it's dealing with a very real and contemporary subject.

Ms. VICKIE RADDEN (Patron, Walker Art Center): This really is not a caricature. There is nothing in this exhibit, quite frankly, that is exaggerated. That is what slavery was about, and people need to see that. They need to understand that. They need to understand the impact of it. I don't need to go very far back in my history. My great-grandmother was a slave, so this is not something that we're talking about that happened that long ago.

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

Ms. WALKER: I don't really want to create a full-on bamboozled, you know, minstrel show. I'd like to kind of have it sit somewhere in between, where we all feel implicated in this continuing drama.

COMBS: "Kara Walker: My Compliment, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love" runs through May 13 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. From there it will tour to Paris, New York City and Los Angeles. For NPR News, I'm Marianne Combs in Minneapolis.

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