Kara Walker opens her private archive at the SCHIRN and provides a comprehensive and exclusive insight into her artistic cosmos.

Kara Walker is one of the most eminent American artists of our time. She achieved world-wide renown with her wall-sized silhouette cutouts and large-scale sculptures, which interrogate racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression and violence in a provocative and impressive way. For the exhibition A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs to Be, the artist is opening up her extensive archive of drawings for the first time. At the Schirn she is presenting some 650 works from the past twenty-eight years, along with a selection of her films.

Her archive comprises drawings in the broadest sense: watercolors, sketches, studies, collages, silhouette cutouts, pages of text, diary-like notes, but also found materials such as advertisements and newspaper clippings. Work on paper is of central importance to Walker’s practice. The artist masterfully makes use of diverse styles, references, and techniques—from charcoal and ink to pastel chalk and crayon drawings. Her intimate sketches and notes are a place for graphic thought processes, and simultaneously a vehicle for satire and caricature, imagination and subversion.

Walker makes visible conflicts and traumas that persist to this day

Walker relentlessly shakes up pictures from history, examines racist power structures, stereotypes, and gender roles with radical openness and stark visual imagery. In doing so, she repeatedly makes reference to events and topics, both historical and current, from the transatlantic slave trade to the presidency of Barack Obama. The artist makes visible conflicts and trauma that are still felt today and deals unsparingly with the emergence of the collective American identity and her own personal one as well.

Kara Walker, Untitled, 2016, from a 57-part series: Untitled © Kara Walker

Kara Walker’s extensive oeuvre of drawings has hitherto remained nearly overlooked. Most of the works being shown at the Schirn were not initially created explicitly for the public and facilitate personal insight into the artist’s working process. Many of them have the character of a sketch or study and are produced using swift strokes, without the backgrounds being elaborated in detail. The drawn line also remains an important element in the painterly-seeming works. Numerous pieces were created in series and have no individual titles. The presentation of her artwork in diverse formats does not follow any chronology. Kara Walker combines series from various periods anew so that new connections arise on the walls of the exhibition. 

Kara Walker became known in the 1990s with her characteristic silhouette cutouts in panorama-like round pictures and room-filling installations. The choice of this technique reflects her conscious decision against the established art canon. After completing her university studies, Walker, as a Black woman, saw no path for her to express herself in the genre of painting, which has been shaped by the dominance of white men and a history written from a white perspective. Instead, in addition to the silhouette, she turned to drawing, which has constantly accompanied her artistic work ever since. While many artists develop freely through drawing, Walker here plays intentionally with the traditions, styles, and techniques of the Western European history of art, adapts it, charges it with new contents. As in the silhouette cutouts, the artist at first deceives with the filigree form and then shocks with the contents depicted.

Kara Walker, Untitled, 2019, from a 44-part series: Untitled © Kara Walker

In addition to the approximately 600 works from Walker’s private archive, the Schirn is also presenting more recent works like the series of four large-format portraits that Kara Walker dedicated to Barack Obama and his role as the first Black President of the United States, created in 2019 as a reaction to the official portrait by the artist Kehinde Wiley. Rendered with great detail in the technique of charcoal and pastel chalk drawing, Kara Walker presents Obama in various roles taken from the religious and literary cultural history of Europe.

Kara Walker’s themes do not map to specific points in history

Kara Walker’s topics have deep roots in the American past, yet without portraying any concrete points in history. In her works, various aspects and temporal levels are instead condensed and superimposed. In a thirty-eight-part series, for instance, she brings together the Founding Fathers of the United States, the exploitation of Black bodies for medical purposes, and current eruptions of violence against Black people, showing that the historical dehumanization of Black individuals has served to encourage racist practices that continue to have deadly consequences still today. In other artworks, Walker overpaints yellowed newspaper articles or pages that appear to come from old history books, incorporating figures and stories that fracture and interrogate the narrative of a history written from a white perspective.

Kara Walker, Barack Obama as Othello "The Moor" With the Severed Head of Iago in a New and Revised Ending, 2019 © Kara Walker, Photo: Jason Wyche
Kara Walker, Success and the Stench of Ingratitude (Detail), 2012 © Kara Walker
Kara Walker, Success and the Stench of Ingratitude (Detail), 2012 © Kara Walker
Kara Walker, Success and the Stench of Ingratitude (Detail), 2012 © Kara Walker

Another central component of Kara Walker’s work process is writing. A large portion of the archive consists of text. Besides collected quotes, the elements of text, language, and literature are also incorporated into her oeuvre in various ways. The exhibition title, for instance, comes from her comic-like long “murals” of 2012, which combine provocative slogans and poetic lines with drawings. The complete sentence is “The Sweet, Sweet Smell of Success, and the Stench of Ingratitude . . . A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs to Be” and flanks the drawing of a naked Black woman kneeling in front of a white man and vomiting on his shoes, thus juxtaposing the submissive position with resistant refusal. 

A large part of the archive consists of text

On a linguistic and graphic level, in her examination of topics like racist and sexualized violence, Walker makes use of stereotypes that have become ingrained in the cultural and visual memory of the United States over centuries and are today known around the world. Some works from Kara Walker’s archive also make reference to examples of sexism and racism in Germany. What interests Walker here is not mere reproduction, but instead a relentless confrontation and grotesque overdrawing that expose corresponding ascriptions.

Kara Walker, Untitled, 2016, from the 31-part series: Only I Can Solve This (The 2016 Election) © Kara Walker
Kara Walker, Untitled, 2012, from a 28-part series: Trolls © Kara Walker

This act of reclaiming is simultaneously also a reaction to cultural appropriation and a strategy for self-empowerment, such as the claiming of the N-word by part of the Black population in the United States. As an artist, Kara Walker makes clichés work for her and combines reality, fiction, and fantasy. At the same time, by appropriating styles and citations from the Western European history of art, she blurs the boundaries between what actually happened and what might have occurred. Her work thus casts a critical gaze at the past, the present, and the future.

As an artist, Kara Walker makes clichés work for her

In addition to the oeuvre of works on paper, the Schirn is also showing three videos by the artist. The filmic works bring together aspects from Kara Walker’s artistic oeuvre that are also characteristic of her drawings and silhouette cutouts, unfolding their inherent narrative potential in an impressive way. In her videos, Walker develops the technique of the silhouette further by creating moving figures that she as narrator guides with her hand. In the video work presented, she interweaves historical events with fictitious elements, reflects stereotypical narratives, and stages nightmarish stories of racist violence and exploitation in the ostensibly sedate form of shadow theater.

Kara Walker, The Welcoming Commitee, 2018, from a 13-part series: The Gross Clinician Presents: Pater Gravidam ©Kara Walker
Kara Walker, 'merica 2016, 2018, from a 13-part series: The Gross Clinician Presents: Pater Gravidam © Kara Walker


15 October 2021 – 16 January 2022

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