Kara Walker is an artist who has courted controversy in her native America due to her use of ethnic stereotyping in her work and for shining a light on a dark chapter in America’s history, which most of her fellow countrymen and women would rather not dwell on.
Walker is best known for her cut out silhouettes in black and white depicting either the mistreatment of black people or America’s casual attitude towards gun ownership. Despite the silhouettes being one colour, it’s easy to tell the ethnicity they represent as Walker gives black characters inflated lips and enlarged genitalia in line with racial stereotypes. In one picture a white man plays golf while a black man lies prostrate holding the golf tee between his teeth while in others black characters are hunted down by dogs.
Facing across from these silhouettes are Walker’s large scale drawings showing horrific scenes of houses on fire and more historical events depicting the abuse of black people. These feel much more serious than the silhouettes and can be quite hard to stomach.
The final work is a film of Walker’s shadow puppets playing out scenes of sexual and racial violence. It’s obvious that some people may find these scenes upsetting but the characters are such extreme caricatures that it feels divorced from reality – whether it be historic or current. This softens the blow of her work but means it also loses some of its potency as it’s difficult to view a darkly humorous work and take away a serious political message.
This is a challenging exhibition covering adult and distressing themes. By overplaying stereotypes it does lose its way at times but overall it’s a powerful exhibition that leaves a lasting impact on the viewer, whether it be of disgust or appreciation for Walker’s work.
Kara Walker is on at Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road, NW3 6DG. Admission is free.