In African’t, Kara Walker’s cutouts are nearly life size, becoming a theater of remembrance and forgetting. Here, blacks and whites, men, women, and children, all participate in pre-Civil War scenes of degradation, sex, and violence. African’t presents many intimate moments within the larger work, pushing traditional narratives and familiar characters (such as Brer Rabbit from the Uncle Remus tales) to physical and psychological extremes of violence and inhumanity. Walker is intent to expose these extremes, these flashes of terror, in the memories and attitudes of the present, demonstrating that the repression of history comes only at society’s peril.
Kara Walker’s works recover the iconography of the antebellum South, using the collective memories of the plantation owners and their slaves. In most of her work, Walker revives the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art of silhouetting, a long-dormant medium formerly used for portraiture, caricatures, idyllic landscapes, and decorative craft. Walker’s cutouts are nearly life size and often span either an entire wall or an entire room. Blacks and whites, men, women, and children all participate in scenes of degradation, sex, and violence as Walker interprets and studies pre–Civil War race relations. Political, funny, and beautiful, these satirical comments on race, slavery, lust, and domination generate controversy from all sides.
In 1995, Walker began a long series of sketches that have become an image bank of sorts for her larger works. Improvisational and direct, the Negress Notes, as Walker calls them, “are a way of establishing themes.” From set 5 of the series Negress Notes, 1996, consists of twenty-six drawings that record fantastic and often shocking moments from the history of slavery.
In Danse de la Nubienne Nouveaux, 1998, a seemingly fairy-tale illustration becomes a devilish account. Acrobatic slave girls flip through the air and dive through a flaming hoop into the proverbial cannibal’s pot. In this piece, as with most of Walker’s work, stereotyped symbols of the history of slavery are revealed as societal projections of a paternalistic white society. In Freudian analysis, a method Walker is fond of, the symbols have a psychodynamic underpinning fueled by sexual desire, violence, and power.