Finding Direction : A Fantasy Self Put Artist Kara Walker on the Path to Personal, Professional Identity

Twenty-seven-year-old artist Kara Walker--whose installation of silhouettes provocatively reinterpreting the antebellum South is at the Huntington Beach Art Center--is riding high this year.

She won a MacArthur (“genius”) Grant, participated in the Whitney Biennial and--just last month--became the mother of Octavia Morehope Burgel, who bears the surname of Walker’s German husband.

But Walker’s blazing public success was preceded by a crucial period of self-scrutiny in her early 20s.


She spent her formative years in Atlanta before “escaping up North,” as she put it in a recent phone interview, to study for a master’s degree at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, the city where she still lives.

Speaking in a soft, pleasant voice and apologizing for occasionally wandering off the track, Walker, who is black, described her search for a personal and artistic identity.

“I had a sort of fantasy self that tried to elicit racist responses,” she said. “It was a way of sort of figuring out who I was to other people.”

Meanwhile, she tried to find a new direction for her painting. “I knew I was avoiding all references to race,” she said. “That was something that might be worth investigating.”

Walker was acutely aware of not having had the struggles that marked her father’s generation of black artists. She felt stymied by an unspoken understanding that black art “could talk about struggle, pride, a lot of intangibles like that, but you can’t mess with them. There’s no allowance for fantasy.”

Fantasy, she realized, was her special niche.

“I was re-creating a sense of powerlessness,” she said of her life at that time, “in order to [understand] what power was all about--in effect, fantasizing.

“So I started thinking about fantasy and romance, the romance of the past. [After the Civil War] the South had this heightened sense of regaining its past glory. I sort of sensed that as well in the Afro-American community, in a backhanded way: searching for that time when one knew one’s place [as a slave] in order to know how to get out of it.”

Walker said she was also dealing with her own “interracial desires” and “this sort of deep-seated perception from the outside that I am betraying something.”

Trying to figure out exactly what she was betraying led her to ponder how “the proverbial black woman raped by the white slave owner” still has its echoes in contemporary culture.


But the issues she was grappling with seemed too complicated for painting. While riffling through heaps of pictures related to race and interracial desire, she realized that silhouettes were the answer.

“I suddenly saw them operating in the same way as the stereotype--as a reduction of one’s features [on which] one can project whatever. Most [silhouettes] are black, but they are mainly of white sitters.

“I started thinking in terms of blackface, minstrelsy, even that it was a middle-class art form--a non-art form, really--that women or invalids could practice.”


Walker also liked the way the small silhouettes could be used to re-create the feeling of a 19th century cyclorama, a walk-in display of huge historical paintings. (“African’t,” the piece at the art center, extends along three walls.)

“I want the viewer to be really compelled to look, to have this question mark: Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?” Walker said. “Which means you have to keep looking, which you may not want to do.

“I want the viewer to feel a giddy discomfort--the same sort that happens when I’m making the work.”


* “African’t” continues through Sunday at Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St. Tuesday-Wednesday, noon-6 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, noon-8 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4 p.m. General admission, $3; students and seniors, $2. (714) 374-1650.