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ARTWORKS: Kara Walker

Posted on Wednesday, August 1, 2018

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In anticipation of the 2018 Des Moines Art Center Gala | ARTWORKS, each week through September we will feature a new artist and artwork that illustrates the power of art to connect, to transform, to empower and so much more.

This week’s post features the work of artist Kara Walker and the power of art to investigate.

New York-based artist Kara Walker is best known for her candid investigation of race, gender, sexuality, and violence through silhouetted figures that have appeared in numerous exhibitions worldwide.

The Art Center has two works by Walker in the permanent collection, one of which is currently on view In the Spirit of Louse Noun in the Anna K. Meredith Gallery through Sunday, September 2.

Learn more about artist Kara Walker on The Art Story.

Kara Walker The Means to an End...A Shadow Drama in Five Acts

Kara Walker (American, born 1969)
The Means to an End . . . A Shadow Drama in Five Acts,1995
Hard-ground etching and aquatint on paper
34 5/8 × 116 5/8 inches
Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections;
Gift of Doreen M. and Kirk V. Blunck, 2009.72.a-.e

From the Art Center’s permanent collection book, Des Moines Art Center Collects

Kara Walker’s imagery draws from our collective memories of the antebellum South derived from history books, old films, television, and caricatures. Yet, the time period encapsulated by Walker holds many of our most poignant views of race and of the relationship between black and white Americans, as both of her works in the Des Moines Art Center’s collections show. In her hands, this time is often portrayed in absurd, embarrassingly funny, and biting images.

A long line of historical as well as contemporary artists have used the incongruous to echo a moment in time and illuminate a point of view. Through the absurd, these artists attempt to arrive at some notion of truth. Goya’s series of prints, “Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)” of 1810–20, for example, offer a striking comparison to Walker’s work. His images of Spain’s turbulent Peninsular War (1808–14) with France epitomize human cruelty and suffering in a straightforward format that presents horrendous images as facts. Walker’s antebellum South echoes a comparable shift in societal structure, and her use of the absurd is similar to Goya’s. She presents as fact unimaginable images of sexual revelry, brutality, and defacement. Whereas Goya confronted his own time and place, Walker borrows from history, employing stereotypical images widely perceived as derogatory to African Americans. She extracts from the mythology of these images a response to contemporary racial concerns. She creates another version of history, admittedly unpleasant, that causes both black and white Americans to reevaluate their archives of conflict.

Untitled, composed of black paper on canvas, mimics nineteenth-century cutout silhouettes and uses humor and absurdity as strategies to bring attention to a collective history that has in part created how American society views race. Here a young white boy dresses, or perhaps undresses, while a young black girl with pigtails dances in a balletic relevé nearby. Masterful technical abilities enhance the potent content, as Walker makes caricatures of the ghosts of our past.

entirely unexpected