MHC Seminar 1, Professor Casey Henry

Category: KaraWalker

Kara Walker uses symbols and stereotypes to portray the racist views of the Deep South. She creates stereotypical images of black people with big noses and full lips. Her depiction of the white people seemed demonic in a way, as some were painted with horns like the Devil. She displays shadows in most of her works, adding depth to the images.

At first, when you look at her work, it all seems very chaotic. But as you close into one spot, you notice that individual stories are being told. The setting for a lot of these ‘’stories’’ seem to take place in swamps, or otherwise muddy environments. Walker depicts a lot of bloodshed, with innumerable accounts of beheadings, hangings, and stabbings. In some works, she illustrates Confederate flags standing tall, while the American flag lays ripped up on the floor.


The image above sends out a simple, yet powerful message. The religion of Islam has been grossly misconstrued since the wake of 9/11.  A religion whose literal definition is peace today is seen as the forefront for all terrorist activity. The symbolic crescent moon and star of the religion waves proudly on the flags of predominantly Muslim nations. In this picture, however, it is being manipulated,taking on the image of a bomb. A major reason for why the religion has been viewed in a negative light is the because of the media’s portrayal of terrorist activity. Generally, when a Muslim person commits an act of terrorism, they are viewed as a terrorist. If a black person commits an act of terrorism, they are associated with gang activity. But when a white person commits an act of terrorism, the media takes a softer approach, usually blaming it on mental illness.

Kara Walker

Kara Walker’s work is interesting in that it combines a bunch of extremely powerful and simple conflicting images to create a jarring effect on the viewer. The subjects never seem to have any self-awareness as to whats going on so that is really left to the viewer to do. This contributes to the feeling of how wrong things are. You are not told what’s wrong but showed what is wrong which is even more effective. My making the grotesque normal, it makes it harder to stomach.

This can be very effective and also extremely dangerous because it leads to incorrect assumptions or powerful misdirected emotional responses. For example, if you miss use a strong image with another extremely emotionally loaded image, it may cause someone to miss the intent of your work. In the case of Kara Walker, this does not seem to be true. She has very effectively used powerful visual cues with each other to make your brain hurt.

Kara Walker blog post for October 4

Kara Walker’s artworks were jarring in how she portrayed scenes of discrimination towards black people and the audacity and egoism of white people that makes it that you can’t look away. They illustrated the intense feelings of the subjects and of those who lived in that time period which conveys the hard reality of racism where white people consistently dominated. There is even the illustration of  the lady of justice battered and wounded as a connection to the treatment of black people.


What I wanted to convey is how the written word is a symbol of authority. In this case as shown in the image, I chose to talk about same-sex marriage in the written word. I drew it because I couldn’t find an image that portrayed same-sex marriage as such in rules and regulations. I used to live in the Philippines whose major religion  was Roman Catholicism and studied in an all-girls catholic school. My friend wrote an essay about the experience in catholic school how conservative the school was. A whole auditorium of freshmen to seniors dedicated to talks of sexuality and how same-sex was a sin which many found the talk horrible. Christian Living class you take every year had lessons in the later HS years which talked of homosexuality being a sin, where there was a test that evaluated your values as they ask your response as a Catholic to other people who identified as gay or bisexual (and many students refusing to fill in those answers). Or how there are either teachers who don’t support it or those who do but can’t do anything about the administration. And all in all students are used to tolerating it and its terrible. And the fact that Marriage in the Philippines is only valid if its between a man and a wife. LGBTQ are being exposed to the idea that they aren’t valid and have to deal with it all around the world. Laws that discriminate on your identity or sexuality and prevent one from many rights in their workplace, public space, or being with your partner. And because they are law, others will see it as so and act as is dictated. Authoritative figures dictate what is right or bad which is exposed to the public and as a result creates insecurity, prejudice, and inequality.

Kara Walker Blog

In one of Kara Walker’s painting, Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit), the overall feeling and “vibe” that it gives off is very dark and negative. The painting does not have a variety of color, the main focuses are black and white. It shows chaos and we can see people sinking in and a man that is standing in a position as if he is saying he has nothing left. In the bottom right corner, we can see half a head since the rest of the body was submerged in “society”. This is can be a similar depiction of our current society under Trump’s administration. We are “submerging” because of Trump and his policies/visions for America. It is true to some extent that our current society is depicted in this way by Kara Walker. However, I wouldn’t say that everyone is suffering or falling in the same way. One thing I would change about this painting would be to add more colors in addition to the black and white. I would alter it in a way that some areas are bright and cheerful whereas other areas remained the same.

          One symbol that is damaging to women is snakes as a symbol of female sexuality because of snakes association with sin. This symbol is one that permeates throughout society and has its roots in the bible. The symbol has its origin in the story of Adam and Eve is where the devil in the form of a snake tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. In the modern-day context, however, this association can perpetuate the cycle of subconsciously slut shaming because female sexuality is associated with snakes, and therefore sin, while male sexuality is not. Never do you see a man’s sexuality degradingly depicted with a snake.

          Associating snakes with female sexuality is seen throughout works of art. Some artists, such as Kara Walker, use this symbol in their art as a critique and to embrace female sexuality. Walker portrays a woman intertwined with a snake while she participates in self-penetration. This particular artist turns the symbol that many may find degrading into a powerful image of female sexuality. Walker is critiquing this symbol and the negative connotation of expressive self-sufficient female sexuality by embracing the degeneration. She embraces this stereotype and makes it the forefront of her painting, which many may find graphic. By making a detailed and expressive image she is desolating the stereotype and embracing female sexuality.

          The association of female sexuality with snakes can perpetuate the stigma that a woman’s sexuality, whether it be promiscuous or monogamous, is sinful. Woman’s sexuality, both women who are cis and trans, should be celebrated instead of viewed as somewhat sinful or scandalous. Perhaps the decreased use of symbols such as snakes would help end the cycle that views sexual activities of woman as sinful or slutty while men doing those same acts are simply men and those actions go unquestioned.  


Kara Walker

Kara Walker in her actual art does not use many colors and generally all the people portrayed are silhouettes.  We are forced to look at aspects of the person, such as shape, hair, facial features etc. Because of this simplicity she manages to portray stereotypes strongly. For example, in her art titled  “Mississippi Mud” we  have no choice but to stereotype the child. Through her use of stereotypes she also depicts racism, the south and what actually went down there, treatment of women etc. Together the stereotype and history shown makes her work stick around in our mind thus forcing one to address the stereotype and the history that comes along with it.

With that in mind, obviously there are many different stereotypes that exist today.  Often they are subtly conveyed in images.  A very dangerous stereotype is that the successful person is one who earned a lot of money and has a high power career.   In the attached image, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook is deemed “successful.” The article itself writes about her “mission to reboot feminism.” However, a glance at this cover photo and one gets the feeling she is successful because she has an extremely high position and earns a lot of money. It is true that Sheryl Sandberg is very successful. However, I think it is harmful when it is conveyed as the ultimate success. Most will not become really wealthy or have positions such as Sheryl’s. Yet, if the expectation is that earning money and having a powerful career is making it in life, and one does not accomplish that, then they will feel like the ultimate failure and become depressed. Therefore, I think that “success” in our society should be redefined. 


Kara Walker Post – Blog # 4


With Kara Walker, the message resonating through this single piece is only one in a kingdom of millions. Walker, with most of her art, uses silhouettes and plays with the limits of ambiguity and everything but. She paints a scene with enough detail to understand the concept she is trying to convey, but leaves space for detailed interpretation. It sometimes become difficult to decipher which limb belongs to which character, but this becomes a clever tactic that feeds personalization. In the image above titled, Cover of my Negro Novella, it resonates a feeling of exhaustion, It pulls the viewers into its time and place, and allows them to physically feel the torment of the past. Walker often tampers with landscapes and this is the prime example. The man (below the other), seems as of he is trudging up an exponentially steep slope. The man above him, also black, pulls his arm back, as if to remind his fellow negro that the only position they must remain in is to be inferior than the whites. His face speaks volumes; he looks up through the crack of the walls to something grander. The very idea of autonomy keeps his soul alive, as if enslavement fails to trouble him if he’s still connected to something bigger than both the prisoner and the jailer.




Edwin Forbes was an extremely influential artist during the American Civil War. In order to portray the time objectively as possible, he was known to draw anything and everything in its most natural state. In the image above, Edwin sketched the shabby exterior of a southern cabin used by the house servants and farm-hands. The house looks as if it will collapse, as if it lacks a proper foundation to support its weight. This, however, is contrasted by the spirt exerted from its inhabitants. Thousands of soldiers recalled with immense pleasure the kindness they received from the blacks in the south. The sick and wounded soldiers would receive not only love but pies and pastries from the old ‘aunties’;no one would be turned away. The liveness of the enslaved would be so impactful, where the town depicted above would radiate, not from eloquent houses or architecture, but from the dense souls living in it. Both Forbes and Walker speak about similar times using two drastically different art styles and manners. They, however, uniformly project the concept of breaking stereotypes and bringing the truth to light.


Kara Walker Post – Blog # 4

Blog # 4


Kara Walker’s exhibit is one that has to be observed with a close attention to detail. One is not able to point out all of the elements that make it up her artwork with a first look. Kara Walker’s art is made up of many different components that are essential to the full meaning of her intended message. One piece in particular that I at first overlooked is titled Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something), 2017. Looking more closely at this piece, i was able to point out both adult and children figures. What called my attention the most, however, was what was happening to the children. In this piece by Walker, children are hunted down and murdered by some of the adult figures. In another part of the piece, a female figure is show holding a baby, perhaps her very own dead baby.  Kara Walker makes extensive use of silhouettes against a white background in her work to get her message across.

The image I chose for this blog depicts the Statue of Liberty,  a standing figure that for years has inspired many to flee from their countries and dream of a better life in America. The meaning behind this figure is powerful; It conveys feelings of freedom, liberty and opportunity like never before. The statue of Liberty serves as a welcome symbol to those who get to see it, but if we think about it, to what extent are those values carried through today in our country?  In the poem titled The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, people are encouraged to believe that the United states is a country of new opportunity. The lines below portray the idea of acceptance in America, and yet for years the United States has battled with problems concerning immigration.


“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In the year 1931, for example, in the midst of the Great Depression, many Americans blamed immigrants for taking their jobs. Even today, in the year 2017, we are able to witness just how divided the nation is on the topic of immigration. We hear talks about deporting illegal immigrants, placing bans on travel for Muslims and even the construction of a wall that would contradict rather than promote the values expressed by the Statue of Liberty.

Kara Walker’s exhibit

Kara Walker aims to take back symbols and stereotypes of Antebellum South with appropriation in her art. The black people are portrayed with the common stereotypes of big noses, flat profiles and bigger lips. Specifically, she depicts black females on the ground, usually with a snake near the body, usually in distress as a white man is above her.   This use of symbols and stereotypes is not meant to be deconstructive, but rather constructive in portraying the cruel and harsh reality of slaves during this time. Rather than look at racism through soft scope, Walker takes her art straight to the hard truth in hopes to change the way American’s look at slavery.


The image above is an advertisement from the 1950s for the stereotypical housewife. Where it was sanctioned that a woman’s only purpose was to be enslaved to her family. In this ad, they call it “Specialist in Proper Family Nourishment,” giving the illusion that it is a real job when really all this woman is allowed to do all day is cook, clean, and provide for her children. This stereotype is trademarked by a perfect looking woman, with kempt hair and perfect makeup. She even has a perfect manicure. She is also depicted carrying three large helpings of food. Obviously, this stereotype has been beyond damaging in woman’s strife for equal rights and while we have been moving away from images like this, woman continue to face disparities in the real world with equal wages and fair treatment.

Prompt for October 4



As I wrote in my email to you, here is the new prompt for the Kara Walker show, which has been substituted for the Ian Cheng PS1 show. (The Walker show, for those of you who didn’t receive my email, is located at Sikkema Jenkins & Co Gallery, at 530 WEST 22ND STREET NEW YORK NY 10011.)

Here is the prompt:

Instead of strictly obeying the Ian Cheng prompt that’s listed on your syllabus, I’d like you to think instead about the reappropriated use of symbols and stereotypes in Walker’s work (her use of nineteenth-century cowboys, slaves, and Confederate icons, for instance). Then, in a visual post (meaning you will copy and paste in an image, or include a link to an image), I want you to provide and write about an “icon” or “symbol” or “stereotypic depiction” of our modern day that you think is damaging, or in need of modification, or that can be employed in a new way. Describe why you feel this way, or, feel free to make an original (but simple) work of art that reappropriates or tampers with this icon. If you make a small visual piece, just include a short, few-sentence-long explanation, as well. This is meant to be open-ended, and creative, so feel free to write about, or comment artistically on, a subject, image, or concept that means something to you.


On a technical note, as it’s easier to embed images and media into a “post” rather than a “comment,” please feel free to respond via a “post” to the blog (as some students did before for the Doll’s House response). Just identify in the subject line that you’re responding to Walker.