Walker was born in Stockton, California in 1969. Her retired father, Larry Walker, is a formally educated artist, a professor, and an administrator. Her mother worked as an administrative assistant.
“One of my earliest memories involves sitting on my dad’s lap in his studio in the garage of our house and watching him draw. I remember thinking: ‘I want to do that, too,’ and I pretty much decided then and there at age 2½ or 3 that I was an artist just like Dad.” —Kara Walker
Kara Walker moved to her father's native Georgia at the age of 13 when he accepted a position at Georgia State University. She received her BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. Walker first came to art world attention in 1994 with her mural Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. This unusual cut-paper silhouette mural, presenting an old-timey south filled with sex and slavery was an instant hit. At the age of 27 she became the second youngest recipient of the coveted John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant, second only to renowned Mayanist David Stuart. In 2007 Walker Art Center exhibition Kara Walker: My Complement, My Oppressor, My Enemy, My Love was the artist’s first full-scale U.S. museum survey. Walker currently lives in New York, where she has been a professor of visual arts in the MFA program at Columbia University since 2001. Influences include Andy Warhol, with his omnivorous eye and moral distance; and Robert Colescott, who inserted cartoonish Dixie sharecroppers into his version of Vincent van Gogh’s Dutch peasant cottages.
Beginning with Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart (1994), Walker became known for her panoramic friezes of cut-paper silhouettes, usually black figures against a white wall, which address the history of American slavery and racism through violent and unsettling imagery. Walker has produced works in ochregouaches, video animation, shadow puppets, and "magic-lantern" projections, as well as a number of black-paper silhouettes, perhaps her most recognizable works to date.
Walker's silhouette images work to bridge unfinished folklore in the Antebellum South, raising identity and gender issues for African American women in particular. However, because of her confrontational approach to the topic, Walker's artwork is reminiscent of Andy Warhol's Pop Art during the 1960s (indeed, Walker says she adored Warhol growing up as a child). Her nightmarish yet fantastical images incorporate a cinematic feel. Walker uses images from historical textbooks to show how African American slaves were depicted during Antebellum South. Some of her images are grotesque, for example, in The Battle of Atlanta, a white man, presumably a Southern soldier, is raping a black girl while her brother watches in shock, a white child is about to insert his sword into a nearly-lynched black woman's vagina, and a male black slave rains tears all over an adolescent white boy.
Walker debuted a public exhibition at the The Drawing Center in New York City in 1994. Her installation Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart "polarized the New York art world".
In response to Hurricane Katrina, Walker created "After the Deluge," since the hurricane had devastated many poor and black areas of New Orleans. Walker was bombarded with news images of "black corporeality," including fatalities from the hurricane reduced to bodies and nothing more. She likened these casualties to African slaves piled onto ships for the Middle Passage, the Atlantic crossing to America.
I was seeing images that were all too familiar. It was black people in a state of life-or-death desperation, and everything corporeal was coming to the surface: water, excrement, sewage. It was a re-inscription of all the stereotypes about the black body.
In February 2009, Walker was included in the inaugural exhibition of Sacramouche Gallery, "The Practice of Joy Before Death; It Just Wouldn't Be a Party Without You." Recent works by Kara Walker include Frum Grace, Miss Pipi's Blue Tale (April–June 2011) at Lehmann Maupin, in collaboration with Sikkema Jenkins & Co. A concurrent exhibition, Dust Jackets for the Niggerati- and Supporting Dissertations, Drawings submitted ruefully by Dr. Kara E. Walker, opened at Sikkema Jenkins on the same day.
In 2005, The New School unveiled Walker’s first public art installation, a site-specific mural titled Event Horizon and placed along a grand stairway leading from the main lobby to a major public program space.
In May 2014, Walker debuted her first sculpture, a monumental piece entitled A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. The massive work was installed in the disused Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn and commissioned by Creative Time. The exhibition consisted of a giant female sphinx, measuring approximately 80-feet long by 40-feet high, and several life-size child-like figures, dubbed attendants. The sphinx was made by covering a polystyrene core with machine-cut blocks of white sugar, which were then further cut by hand and smoothed with a sugar slurry. Domino donated 80 tons of sugar for Walker's piece. The smaller figures were cast from boiled sugar (similar to hard candy) and had a dark amber or black coloring. The attendants were modelled after some figurines that Walker had purchased on Amazon.com. After the exhibition closes in July, the refinery will be demolished as had been planned before the show.
For the season 1998/1999 in the Vienna State Opera Kara Walker designed a large scale picture (176 m2) as part of the exhibition series "Safety Curtain", conceived by museum in progress. In 2009, Walker curated volume 11 of Merge Records', Score!. Invited by fellow artist Mark Bradford in 2010 to develop a set of free lesson plans for K-12 teachers at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Walker offered a lesson that had students collaborating on a story by exchanging text messages.
The Detroit Institute of Art removed her The Means to an End: A Shadow Drama in Five Acts (1995) from a 1999 exhibition "Where the Girls Are: Prints by Women from the DIA's Collection" when African-American artists and collectors protested its presence. The five-panel silhouette of an antebellum plantation scene was in the permanent collection and was to be re-exhibited at some point according to a DIA spokesperson.
A Walker piece entitled The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos caused a controversy among employees at Newark Public Library who questioned in appropriateness for the reading room where it was hung. The piece was covered but not removed in December 2012. After some discussion among employees and trustees the work was again revealed. Kara Walker visited the New Jersey Newark Public Library to discuss the work and the controversy that went with it. Walker did not stray away from the difficult subjects such as race and history.
2014: Anything but Civil: Kara Walker's Vision of the Old South, Saint Louis Art Museum.
2014: Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker's Tales of Slavery and Power, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, Eugene, OR.
2013: Kara Walker, Camden Arts Centre.
2013: Kara Walker: Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War, Pace Master Prints.
2013: Kara Walker: Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!, The Art Institute of Chicago.
2012: Kara Walker: More & Less, Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College.
2011: Kara Walker: Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi's Blue, Lehman Maupin, Chrystie Street.
Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, NY.
2011: Kara Walker: A Negress of Noteworthy Talent, Fondazione Merz, Torino, Italy.
2010: Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), Cincinnati Art Museum, OH.
2009: Mark Bradford, Kara Walker, Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, NY.
2009: Kara Walker: Estampes, Galerie Lelong, Paris.
2008: Kara Walker: The Black Road, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Malaga, Spain.
2007: Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; traveled to Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Hammer Museum, University of California, Los Angeles, CA; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, TX.
2009: Investigations of a Dog: Works from the FACE Collections, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy; Ellipse Foundation, Cascais, Portugal; La maison rouge – Fondation Antoine de Galbert, Paris, France; Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden; DESTE Foundation, Athens, Greece.
A Guest + A Host = A Ghost: Works from the Dakis Joannou Collection. Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens, Greece.
Between Art and Life: The Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Collection, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA.
The Glamour Project, Lehmann Maupin, New York, NY.
Slash: Paper Under the Knife, Museum of Art and Design, New York, NY.
Compass in Hand: Selections from The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection, MoMA, New York, NY.
America, Beirut Art Center, Beirut, Lebanon.
Modern and Contemporary Art at Dartmouth: Highlights from the Hood Museum of Art, Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, NH.
In Praise of Shadows, IMMA Dublin, Ireland; Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, Istanbul, Turkey; Museum Benaki, Athens,Greece.
The Old Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston TX; Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum,University of Minnesota, MN, August; de Cordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA.
Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH,; Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA; San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA.
Order. Desire. Light: An Exhibition of Contemporary Drawings, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland.
Freedom: American Sculpture, The Hague Sculpture 2008, The Hague, The Netherlands.
Las Vegas Collects Contemporary, Las Vegas Art Museum, Las Vegas, NV.
The Puppet Show, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX; Frye Art Museum, Seattle, WA.
Houston Collects: African American Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX.
2008: Cinema Remixed & Reloaded: Black Women Artists and the Moving Image since 1970, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta, GA; traveled to Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston, TX.
2007: 52nd Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy.
2006: Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery, New York Historical Society, New York, NY.
In 1997, Walker — who was 28 at the time — was one of the youngest people to receive a MacArthur fellowship. There was a lot of criticism because of her fame at such a young age and the fact that her art was most popular within the white community. In 2007, Walker was listed among Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in The World, Artists and Entertainers, in a citation written by fellow artist Barbara Kruger. In 2012, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Walker is also the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships such as the Deutsche Bank Prize and the Larry Aldrich Award.
Walker has been featured on PBS. Her work graces the cover of musician Arto Lindsay's recording, Salt (2004).
Walker is represented by Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Since 2014, she has also been represented by the Victoria Miro Gallery in London.
^Cathy Curtis (November 12, 1997), [articles.latimes.com/1997/nov/12/entertainment/ca-52774 Finding Direction: A Fantasy Self Put Artist Kara Walker on the Path to Personal, Professional Identity] Los Angeles Times.
Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed. (2008). Art Now, Vol. 3: A cutting-edge selection of today's most exciting artists. Taschen. p. 488. ISBN978-3-8365-0511-6.
Goldbaum, Karen, ed. Kara Walker: Pictures From Another Time. Seattle: Marquand Books, Inc. ISBN 1-891024-50-7
Vergne, Phillppe. Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center. ISBN 978-0-935640-86-1
D’Arcy, David. "Kara Walker Kicks Up a Storm," Modern Painters (April 2006).
Garrett, Shawn-Marie. "Return of the Repressed," Theater 32, no. 2 (Summer 2002).
Kazanjian, Dodie. "Cut it Out," Vogue (May 2005).
Szabo, Julia. "Kara Walker’s Shock Art," New York Times Magazine 146, no. 50740 (March 1997).
Walker, Hamza. "Kara Walker: Cut it Out," NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art no. 11/12 (Fall/Winter 2000).
Als, Hilton. "The Shadow Act," the New Yorker, October 8, 2007
Non-fiction books and catalogues
Barrett, Terry. Interpreting Art: Reflecting, Wondering, and Responding, New York: Mcgraw Hill (2002).
Berry, Ian, Darby English, Vivian Patterson, Mark Reinhardt, eds. Narratives of a Negress, Boston: M.I.T. Press (2003).
Carpenter, Elizabeth and Joan Rothfuss. Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of A Whole: Walker Art Center Collections. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2005.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, (1858).
Shaw, Gwendolyn Dubois. Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker, Durham and London: Duke University Press (2004).
Vergne, Philippe, et al. Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2007.