One of the most audacious talents of her generation, Kara Walker, 40, is famous for her paper silhouette installations and videos depicting graphic and fantastical scenes of violence, sexuality, and racism in the antebellum South: a male slave impregnated by his owner, a figure lurking beneath a woman's hoop skirt, a comely Southern belle idling near the severed heads of several slaves—her ax still within reach. The images seem at once ancient and immediate, dainty yet grotesque. Walker's work rips open the grim ironies of race as it has been lived in our country for hundreds of years; she does no less than create a secret history of America. In her words:
The work began by thinking about my own body as it encountered the mythologies of the world: I was fed up with the expectations of what a black girl ought to be, but instead of rejecting them outright, I thought I would embrace every concept out there, sort of flouting the notions and taunting those who held them at the same time. I've met people who feel they are in complete cahoots with the work, and with my bizarre imagination; people who don't know what I'm trying to do, who don't see any irony in the work; and people who take it as a personal affront. There's something beautiful about that discomfort, and about the potential for images to contain such raw emotion. These pictures—they're the way history sees us; they're derogatory images of blackness with deep psychic pain attached, and I use and mess around with all of it. But I'm not looking for conclusions, or meaning. I'm not interested in that. It's about unleashing the unmentionable, the antisocial, the sociopathic—and then walking away. To let these images work their magic, their horror, their power—that's tremendous.