Kara Walker is known for her room-sized panoramas depicting scenes of racism, violence, and gender and power struggles. The panoramas are populated by life-size silhouettes, drawn by hand and cut out of black paper, that often portray stereotypical characters of the antebellum south. “The silhouette says a lot with very little information,” Walker has written, “but that’s also what the stereotype does.” By simultaneously flattening and exaggerating her characters, she highlights the reductive ways they’ve been perceived throughout history.
Walker, who has exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and MOMA, became in 1997 one of the youngest recipients of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, a controversial decision that brought her to the forefront of the modern art world. The title of this show comes from the black nationalist Marcus Garvey—by way of Barack Obama, who quoted Garvey in a passage on community organizing in his memoir Dreams From My Father. In its content, “Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!” is a response to the infamous 1978 novel The Turner Diaries, which the FBI called “the bible of the racist right.” The book imagines a race war that ends with the extermination of all nonwhite populations. In the new installation, specifically designed for the Art Institute, Walker’s signature silhouettes are interspersed with drawings and handwritten text that address the book and what she calls “my ever-present, never-ending war with race.”
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the fact that Kara Walker was one of the youngest recipients of a MacArthur fellowship, but not the youngest.