Kara Walker is known for her room-size black cut-paper silhouettes that depict very confrontational images related to race, gender, sexuality, violence and identity in the pre-war south. She began working with cut-paper silhouettes in 1993 as a graduate student at RISD.
The history of paper-cut portraits dates back to late 16th century in France. Beginning in the 1700s, silhouette-cutting became an art form in the US because of its popularity among the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie. But by the mid-1800s, “shadow portraits” were deemed a craft for "good ladies" rather than an art form. During the early 20th-century, silhouettes gained favor as sentimental keepsakes and souvenirs at fairs. Kara wrote “I was really searching for a format to sort of encapsulate, to simplify complicated things...And some of it spoke to me as: ‘it's a medium...historically, it's a craft...and it's very middle-class.’
While I am not specifically interested in just silhouettes, I relate to Kara’s words. I knew that the medium of cut-paper was, until more recently, considered a more archaic craft and I think that is part of what draws me to it. I like the thought of working with a people’s stories in a very modest, very handmade type of material and creating “fine art” from something that is more typically considered a craft. I also like the historical aspect of papercutting – it is a practice commonly found in the histories of various cultures all over the world.
Kara Walker describes her work as both visual and literary. Her storytelling is influenced by literature like southern romance novels, historical fiction, slave narratives, and contemporary novels and some texts are directly referenced in her pieces. In her pieces, Walker employs characters, setting and action to convey a story. These narratives are not always linear, however, and don’t necessarily include a clear plot line. In the Kara's words, “There is always a beginning and there’s never a conclusion.” Walker is interested in the stories we tell about ourselves, and specifically, a desire for a narrative about “African America” that engages the past, present, and future.
While our topics and themes are not related, I also hope to make my illustrations both visual and literary, by becoming a storyteller for the people I speak with. My vision for my illustrations is also not linear, but instead more collage-like with all the elements of a memory coming together for an overall picture. For me, my project has been fueled by an interest in the stories people tell about themselves and the way those stories and memories are shaped.