Reading Resources — Kara Walker

Kara Walker’s artwork unsettles. It offers discomforting views into the complex intertwining of violence and intimacy, pleasure and power, freedom and enslavement that runs through our nation’s fraught past. Drawing from nineteenth century literary genres and forms, Walker asks questions about how our present continues to be informed by our history of racial slavery. Through her use of the silhouette and her references to popular sentimental fiction and slave narratives, Walker’s visual narratives reconsider the roles that stories play on both personal and national levels.

Guiding Question

How is History Represented?

Kara Walker's work not only prompts us to engage with the history of slavery, but it also asks us to consider how visual representation is connected to this history.

Whose point of view shapes a particular story, historical narrative, or image? Who and what typically are left out of stories about our nation's past? How do we continue to support or retell particular myths about history in the present? What role do images and visual forms play in the repetition of these myths?

Teaching Difficult Histories

The United States is a country with two dominant narratives—one is a story celebrating freedom and one is a story about its opposite: unfreedom. The two narratives actually depend on each other, and the history of slavery in the United States is fundamental to them both. The story about freedom and liberty, however, gets told much more frequently, creating a shadow story out of the other—one that is being increasingly reckoned with as this Reading Resources guide is published.

That the history of slavery in the United States is disturbing and difficult is an understatement. However, not knowing about this history, in all of its complexity, supports us to, at best, promote misinformed and fuzzy ideas about our country’s past. By doing so, we not only erase aspects of our history that are important to each and every one of us, but we also continue to repeat ideas of ourselves and each other that can actively do harm.

Kara Walker’s artwork is important to engage with for many reasons but especially because it does not provide easy answers or simple stories. It provokes; it asks us to ask questions.

Rather than turn away from the difficult issues Walker addresses, this Reading Resources considers a few protocols and ways to think about her work in relation to the history of slavery in the United States. Our guide is not meant to be an exhaustive account of Walker’s work or the history of slavery; rather, we hope it begins a process of engagement with both that will continue well beyond what we have assembled here.

  • Activities

    The following exercises are structured to sequentially build on each other. The first activity prepares learners for the difficult conversations compelled by Walker’s work, and we advise you to begin there.

    Due to this content’s challenging nature, we have not provided dedicated activity versions for children. We do, however, encourage children to learn about the history of slavery and abolition and have included resources in our Additional Materials.

    We would also love to hear how you have used Reading Resources. Please share feedback and student work here.

    Activity Group 1: Before Beginning: Teaching History

    However upsetting the history of slavery is, we must engage it in all of its complexity. In this section, alongside other educators, we provide initial frameworks and strategies to support engaging with both the history of slavery, and with the ways this history is misrepresented in some educational materials.

    Activity Group 2: Walker and the Story of the Silhouette

    Why and how does Kara Walker use the silhouette in her artworks? How does the silhouette, and its complex history, connect to the stereotype? What does Walker’s work with the silhouette have to do with how history is represented?

    Activity Group 3: Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War

    What is a primary source? How is it different from a secondary source? Why does this distinction matter?

    Given your work in the previous two sections, we now invite you to consider how Walker uses primary documents from the nineteenth century in her artwork.

    Activity Group 4: A Subtlety and We the People

    This section encourages you to continue researching and thinking about Walker’s art practice and its relationships to history. By comparing projects by Kara Walker and fellow artist Danh Vo, it considers how many artists, not unlike historians, engage with historical narratives and the visual forms important to those narratives.

    Additional Material

    Many educators and organizations carefully address questions pertinent to Walker's work, and throughout our guide we refer to and cite directly from them. The below list of texts, videos, and bibliographies are by no means exhaustive, but meant as a starting place should you want to continue exploring different resources and approaches.

    1. Additional reading and videos (Art21: Kara Walker)
    2. Interview: Kara Walker by Matthea Harvey (Bomb Magazine)
    3. Poetry, prose and illustrations on Kara Walker's "A Subtlety" (CreativeTime Reports)
    4. Khalil Gibran Muhammad on the relationship between sugar and slavery (The New York Times)
    5. Zadie Smith: "What Do We Want History to Do to Us?" (The New York Review of Books)
    6. Talking About Race Web Portal (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)
    7. Hamza Walker: "Presenting Negro Scenes Drawn Upon My Passage..." (The Renaissance Society)
    8. Kara Walker on the Post-Lockdown World (Frieze)
    Videos
    Bibliography
    1. Social Justice Books Reading List for Kids and Teens on "Slavery, Resistance, and Reparations": https://socialjusticebooks.org/booklists/slavery/
    2. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture's "Black Liberation Reading List" for Teens and Adults: https://www.nypl.org/books-more/recommendations/schomburg/adults
    3. Ibram X. Kendi's "Antiracist Reading List" for Teens and Adults as published by the NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/books/review/antiracist-reading-list-ibram-x-kendi.html?dm_i=56G9,7L1B,1FYSC7,TKWK,1
    Colophon

    Reading Resources: Kara Walker was produced by Wendy Tronrud (A. R. T. Education Consultant) in collaboration with Art Resources Transfer (A.R.T.) in 2019-20.

    A.R.T. acknowledges the invaluable generosity, assistance, and enthusiasm of all who contributed to Reading Resources production:

    This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.

    We also thank:
    National Endowment for the Arts
    H.W. Wilson Foundation
    Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
    Mackenzie Salisbury
    A.R.T. Board of Directors
    A.R.T. Advisory Board
    and most specially, Kara Walker.

    Web programming by Document Services.
    Copyright © Art Resources Transfer, Inc 2020.

    All images are protected under copyright by the original rights holders.

    A.R.T. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

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