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Details
Kara Walker (b. 1969)
African't
forty-two cut paper silhouettes
dimensions variable; approximately 144 x 792 in. (365.7 x 2011.6 cm.)
Executed in 1996. (42)
Provenance
Wooster Gardens, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1996
Literature
S. Vincent, "Portrait of the Artist: Kara Walker," Art + Auction, vol. 19, no. 5, December 1996, p. 50 (illustrated in color).
C. Curtis. "Outlining the Past," Los Angeles Times, 14 October 1997, pp. F1-F2 (illustrated).
R. Schoenkopf, "The Shadow Knows: 'African't' Takes a Closer Look at Slavery in America," OC Weekly, 24-30 October, p. 28 (illustrated).
A. Wallach, "The Contemporary Collector's Art," New York Times Magazine. 26 October 1997 (illustrated).
C. Curtis, "Finding Direction: A Fantasy Self Put Artist Kara Walker on the Path to Personal, Professional Identity," Los Angeles Times, 12 November 1997, p. F2.
Anonymous, "Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroes," The International Review of African-American Art, vol. 14, no. 3, Hampton, 1998, p. 2
(illustrated in color).
A. Dixon, Kara Walker: Pictures from Another Time, Ann Arbor, 2002, p. 59 (illustrated in color).
E. J. Searles, Hype and Hypersexuality: Kara Walker, Her Work and
Controversy
, Atlanta, 2006, pp. 19 and 46, fig. 6 (illustrated in
color).
M. Harvey, "The Artist's Voice Since 1981," Bomb Magazine, vol, 100, Summer 2007, p. 79.
Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, exh. cat., Minneapolis, 2007, pp. 350-351, fig. 5 (illustrated).
Exhibited
Ridgefield, Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, No Doubt: African-American Art of the 90s, May-September 1996, p. 21.
SITE Santa Fe, Conceal/Reveal, September-November 1996.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Kara Walker: Upon My Many Masters--An Outline, February-May 1997, n.p.
Huntington Beach Art Center, Kara Walker: African't, October-November 1997 (illustrated, cover).
Stockholm, Index, The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, Kara Walker: African't, April-June 1999.
Andover, Phillips Academy, Addison Gallery of American Art, Point of Reference: Frederick Hayes, Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons and Kara Walker, September-December 2000.
Navarre, Center of Contemporary Art of Huarte, Kara Walker, April 2007.

Lot Essay

Kara Walker's African't is a striking example of the cut-paper life size silhouette installations that first catapulted the artist to fame in the mid-1990s. The museum-quality piece fills 66 running feet of wall, its figures moving across their environment, integrating themselves into the space around them and filling the air with their kinetic presence. Like a shadow drama played out by actors behind a curtain, the forms are seemingly immediate in their presence and yet just out of the reach of full identification, asking the viewer to fill in the intricacies of their narrative with his or her own imagination. The elegantly positioned monochrome silhouettes of African't belie the turmoil of their rendered actions, reflecting Walker's trademark combination of uncomplicated beauty of form juxtaposed with disturbing content. Through African't, Walker's story infiltrates the mind of the viewer using an intricate web of historical, social, and theatrical contexts to comment on slavery's presence in America's collective unconscious .
Walker's medium--cut-paper silhouettes placed against a stark white wall space--was once a decorative hobby of the well-to-do of centuries past. The artist here extends this antique technique to create profiled figures that represent racial identities and stereotypes. From this parlor amusement, Walker has managed to create an extraordinarily expressive mode of visual communication that gives voice to pertinent issues of cultural and racial identity. Walker's cut away method of creation discloses more than form: "It occurred to me that identity was more likely to be revealed by editing away external assumptions" (K. Walker, quoted in, S. Stillman, "In the Studio with Kara Walker," Art in America, May 2011, no. 5, p. 91). With her monochrome profiles, Walker tears her figures out of their preconceived background, allowing their form to inspire an imaginative context by "weaving fictions around other fictions - trying, by subversive means, to approach another truth" (Ibid., p. 92). African't is extraordinary in its candid and veritable treatment of the murky history of antebellum America. That it does so with elegance of form and beauty of figure is indicative of Walker's extraordinary ability.
African't's figures move across their space, engaging in gesticulating postures that attack the visual clichés of American plantation life. This sophisticated reference to antebellum history and nineteenth century visual culture contains various vignettes seemingly tied together by an invisible string of narration. Each silhouette tells a different tale of faceless indignity, using the fantastical to convey that which is rarely seen on gallery or museum walls. The line of figures climbs up and down their blank background, the silhouettes depicting exaggerated stereotypes of profiles and bodies representing the men, women, and children of the pre-Civil War South. The individual scenes do not overlap with one another, yet they work as a unified whole to tell Walker's tale.
African't shifts back and forth between light and dark both in form and content. The figures at first glance are seen to move with an engaging vitality, their poses conveying a humor drawn from exaggerated, if seemingly frivolous movements sketched out as if to portray the great physical comedy of old-time black and white vaudeville and film. Soon, however, the actual actions of the figures begin to take shape. The humor and sexual situations are quickly replaced with atrocities, shocking the viewer out of passive entertainment into full emotional engagement. Walker brings about this realization quietly, letting the viewer in his or her own time grasp that what was funny is now darkly menacing--that the lightness of humor has been replaced by its opposite. Walker's choice of color scheme and her utilization of stark formal contrasts can now be seen as much more than a simple "riff" on nineteenth-century silhouettes. The juxtaposition is a manifestation of the underlying horrors that permeate the memory of historical America.
Walker has a unique ability to portray the unspeakable. Her installations, rendered in their near life-size proportions, invite the viewer to participate in their uncanny drama. The elegantly rendered nature of the figures makes their monstrous activities improbable, and one begins to question if the forms are actually doing what one thinks they are doing. As in Walker's best pieces, this engagement with the work is unavoidable. She challenges her audience to identify with her story, going further than most in her dissection of racial realities.
Walker's work has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. Walker's boundary-pushing installations have inspired conflict, controversy, and great critical acclaim since their debut in 1994. African't is a stunning and rarely available example of the extraordinarily visual wit and formal obfuscation of intent that have continued to inspire Walker's audiences for over a decade.

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