Kara Walker

Kara Walker, "African American," 1998

From The Art of Kara Walker

The history of paper-cut portraits dates back to the court of Catherine de Medici in the late 16th century in France. This decorative practice, which grew increasingly popular during the second half of the 18th-century, was named for Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), Louis XV’s widely unliked French finance minister who cut black paper portraits as a hobby. Beginning in the 1700s, silhouette-cutting gained credence as art form in the United States because of its popularity among the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie. However, by the mid-1800s, “shadow portraits” had lost most of their prestige. Being deemed a craft rather than an art form, secured this portraiture technique a place at carnivals and in classrooms devoted to the training of “good ladies.” During the early 20th-century, silhouettes gained favor as sentimental keepsakes and souvenirs at fairs.
Such imagery was also tied into the 18th-century phenomenon of physiognomy, a pseudo-science claiming that one’s character and intelligence were inscribed on one’s profile. This reduction of human beings to their physical appearance presented Walker with a tool from which to deploy other characterizations found in the history of racial representation.
For Walker, the simplified details of a human form in the black cut-outs seem cartoonish, and resonate with racial stereotypes that are also reductions of actual human beings.
“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.’ It spoke to me in the same way that the minstrel show does…it’s middle class white people rendering themselves black, making themselves somewhat invisible, or taking on an alternate identity because of the anonymity … and because the shadow also speaks about so much of our psyche. You can play out different roles when you’re rendered black, or halfway invisible.”

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