African American artist Kara Walker famously creates large silhouettes that invoke her audience’s discomfort through their imagery, featuring images of slavery. Her work is greatly influenced by race and her experience of life living in the South of the United States. The imagery that she invokes brings attention to the history of her ancestors, the former slaves of the south, who were beaten and raped by the white slave owners. Her work deals with these histories, which are often hushed because they are too painful and disturbing to talk about. She puts these painful histories on display, and forces the audience to think about them.
Walker’s silhouettes in her installation, Insurrection! Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On, display scenes of violence, often so full of shape and cluttered that it is difficult to tell exactly what is going on, or sometimes who is black and who is white. There are glimpses of clarity, a young (presumably black) child holding up a frying pan to a crowd of tangled bodies, almost like a scene from a cartoon. A woman posed suggestively for a slouched man. The lighting in this installation was designed to make the viewer’s silhouette appear alongside these disturbing silhouettes. Walker forces her audience to see themselves injected in the work, to see the role they play in it, the role their ancestors played in it.
Another Walker piece that represents the movement toward large scale interactive exhibitions is “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” a massive sculpture in a soon to be demolished Domino sugar factory, surrounded by smaller sculptures of slave children holding baskets of crops. The central figure is domineering, mimicking a sphinx, but with breasts and distinctly black female features, including earrings and a headwrap. When discussing her work’s connections to history, she says “I don’t think that my work is actually effectively dealing with history, I think of my work as kind of subsumed by history, or consumed by history” The image of the Sphinx, a monument of African history, which has been altered to represent a powerful African American woman is an example of this. The sculptures’ materials spoke both to the factory itself as well as the history of the farm workers who harvested the cane for the sugar and molasses that was made there. The work was incredibly temporary, as the Brooklyn Domino factory was set to be demolished, so it was only on view from May to July of 2014. The sculptures also spoke to this temporarity, in that they dripped molasses because they were made of the very materials that were once refined in the space. The temporality of the work was as much a draw as the scale and interactivity of it, and the occasion was marked by the flood of 130,000+ visitors, including contemporary musicians Beyonce and Jay Z. Their fame is not the only thing that makes their viewing of this work so significant, it is also the thematic similarities, especially to the work of Beyonce, who referred significantly to the history of African Americans in the south in her album and film project Lemonade just two years later in 2016. Walker’s work in this and her other pieces created buzz and contributed to the spread of a historical statement, which exemplifies how large-scale interactive artworks push boundaries and narratives due to their interactiveness.
Guggenheim, “Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On)”
Heartney, Eleanor. “The Long Shadows of Slavery.” Art in America, vol. 95, no. 9, Sept. 2007,
pp. 170–226. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aft&AN=504377497&site=ehost-live.
“Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”.” Creative Time. Accessed April 16, 2019. http://creativetime.org/projects/karawalker/.
Lubell, Ellen. “Gone! Melted Away Before Our Very Eyes.” Sculpture Review 63, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 8–15. http://search.eb
Sutton, Benjamin. “Beyonce, Jay Z, and 130,552 Other People Visited Kara Walker’s Sphinx.” Artnet News. February 02,
2017. Accessed April 16, 2019. https://news.artnet.com/art- world/beyonce-jay-z-and-130552-other-people-visited-
- Heartney, Eleanor. “The Long Shadows of Slavery.” ↵
- Guggenheim, “Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On)” ↵
- "Kara Walker's "A Subtlety"." Creative Time. ↵
- Lubell, Ellen. “Gone! Melted Away Before Our Very Eyes.” ↵
- Sutton, Benjamin. "Beyonce, Jay Z, and 130,552 Other People Visited Kara Walker's Sphinx." ↵