Home Magazine The meaning of the shadows in Kara Walker's work

Among the most followed artists in recent years, the name Kara Walker certainly stands out. During these months and until 5 of April 2020, the American artist is the protagonist of Tate Modern's Hyundai Commission. And what we gonna do now is to go deeper into her artistic poetry.

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Kara Elizabeth Walker was born in Stockton, California in 1969. The matrix of artist's panoramas glued to the white walls of the rooms is produced in the tradition of Indian, Chinese and Javanese shadow theatre. It's a story of dark images that do not present any kind of movement. A landscape of images that tell episodes and stories of men, women and children whose bodies intertwine against the background of huts and trees.

Through a historical method that finds its maximum diffusion in Turkey, Egypt, Europe and Africa during the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the artist recovers a simple and joyful narrative method, which was often used in the theatre or manuals for children. The shadows of Walker are the silhouettes that present nineteenth-century vestigial characteristics, such as large skirts, handkerchiefs and top hats, while the profiles and physiognomies with full lips and powerful bodies recall the African American identity. The actions of these figures slowly reveal a strong erotic and excrementitious component, aggressive and violent. Sexual coupling and defecation, oral and masturbatory relationships are intertwined with mutilation and aggression, rapes and beatings, hangings and frustrated. And so slowly these shadows that at first appeared joyful and innocent, almost humorous and ironic, reveal the artist's intent to identify a removed problem.


A work by Kara Walker (1969) realized through black cardboard cut-out, as is its custom.
The work is in contrast with the typical ideal of the angelic motherhood, which belongs to the world of whites.


Kara Elizabeth Walker, Slavery-Slavery, 1997. Installation view, ARC/Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2007.
Photo: Florian Kleinefenn. © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York


Walker seems to invite the viewer's conscience to take responsibility, in identifying a story that reaches our days, because if it is true, as documented by photographs of the time, the hangings and tortures to African Americans reach up the twenties of the twentieth century. We are talking about dark events that bring to mind the tobacco, cotton and sugar plantations in Alabama and South Carolina, in Louisiana and in Texas, where slaves built houses with poor materials and live in them at the mercy of their masters. 

In others work, the characters echo the silhouette of Josephine Baker with her famous banana costume or recall the graphics and illustrations of Aaron Douglas, both protagonists of the Art Deco and creators of typical figures of the negrophilia of the twenties, when the European avant-garde takes possession of the imaginary linked to primitive cultures and "colored black body" as an erotic subject. For Walker, the social and critical intent is a totality of conscious and unconscious energy fields of her existence and origin. It's a sequence of dark dreams that include and exclude, a kind of weird blacklight, that could illuminate a vision for the present.

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