Kara Walker: Cut to the Quick

By Amber Sesnick, Director of Communications and Marketing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville

© Kara Walker, An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters: no world, edition 19/30, 2010.
Etching with aquatint, sugar lift, spitbite and drypoint, 27 x 39 in. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer. Photo by Strode Photographic LLC

Kara Walker (b. 1969) is an American contemporary artist, best known for her massive installations of cut paper silhouette tableaux. Her striking silhouette cutouts fill entire walls with imagery that is at first beautiful, then on closer inspection tell a story of deep trauma, hurt, and exploitation. She employs a medium that has traditionally been used by the white elite to depict docile, pleasant scenes and turns it on its head to depict the other side of history—a side that is less palatable, often painful, and frequently left out. 

Walker spent her early life living in California before moving with her family to Atlanta, Georgia as a teenager. She has acknowledged the effects of this move on the development of her work, due to the stark differences in the way she and her family were received by these two states. 

A classically trained painter and printmaker, Walker studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and was later awarded a MacArthur genius grant. She quickly recognized that her interests gravitated toward genre and historical paintings and has used this interest in imagery that tells a story to inform her own work, which spans a variety of media including drawing, painting, collage, printmaking, sculpture, performance, film, video, shadow puppetry,  light projection, and animation.

Using exaggerated stereotypes, Walker’s art addresses themes of slavery, racism, exploitation, gender, and physical and sexual abuse. She is not concerned with propriety but rather with getting to the truths within histories and stories. Her work is strongly informed by history, mythology, literature, and fantasy, and her process involves extensive research, resulting not in exact retellings, but in her own examinations of the fictions that are handed down through the generations. 

© Kara Walker, “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated): Exodus of Confederates from Atlanta,” edition 21/35, 2005. Offset lithography and screenprint, 39 x 53 in. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer. Photo by Strode Photographic LLC.

In her current exhibition at MOCA Jacksonville, “Kara Walker: Cut to the Quick, from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation,” visitors can see more than 80 works the artist created between 1994 and 2019 in a diverse range of media. Laid out in thematic sections, this career-spanning retrospective encourages viewers to rethink their ideas of topics that are difficult, but important to understand. Her thought-provoking images of exaggerated racial and gender caricatures and depictions of the antebellum South critique the painful legacies of slavery, gender violence, and colonialism through works that are both compelling and challenging. Her imagery asks the viewer to question the stories they think they know and to consider the ways in which history’s impacts remain to this day. 

The topics addressed in Walker’s work can be difficult to view, to process, and to talk about. But this should not make us shy away. Viewing these stories, discussing these topics, and learning more about people’s different experiences of our world is how we grow into a stronger community. The themes she addresses are as relevant as they have ever been, and “Cut to the Quick” could not be timed more perfectly with our current societal dialogue.

© Kara Walker, “Testimony,” edition 12/40, 2005. Photogravure, 22 3/8 x 31 in. Collection f Jordan D. Schnitzer. Photo by Strode Photographic LLC.

MOCA Jacksonville is committed to promoting the discovery, knowledge, and advancement of the art, artists, and ideas of our time. This exhibition is one example of our commitment to bring a diverse selection of voices and experiences to the community. We look forward to sharing more about our goals and the work we are doing to make tangible change within our organization, our community, and the art world.

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Author: Arbus

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