Kara Walker In Londen

Kara Walker at the Camden Arts Centre
‘I don’t want to do what’s expected of me as a black artist’ … Kara Walker at the Camden Arts Centre. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

Two years ago, Kara Walker came across a news story in an edition of the 19th-century Atlanta newspaper the Daily Constitution. The year was 1878; the piece described, in excruciating detail, the recent lynching of a black woman. The mob had tugged down the branch of a blackjack tree, tied the woman’s neck to it, and then released the branch, flinging her body high into the air.

This terrible fragment of the past has made its way into a large graphite drawing, now hanging inside the Camden Arts Centre, London, where Walker is about to have her first major UK solo show. Like much of her work, the drawing is both beautiful and disturbing: here, in grotesque, cartoonish monochrome, is the blackjack tree, the lynched woman spilling blood, her assailants laughing as she dies. As I stand and stare, Walker tells me why she was so drawn to the story. “It’s this completely absurd, extreme, violent situation that required so much perverse ingenuity.”

Her London show is not large – just three rooms, with 11 recent works – but it is significant and overdue. Walker is one of the most uncompromising contemporary American artists, not just for the quality of her work – which comprises drawing, film, and her signature medium, silhouettes – but for the fact that her art engages with what many would rather forget: the appalling violence meted out to the black population before and after the American civil war and the abolition of slavery, and the legacy of racism that still shapes the US political agenda.

Another drawing, Urban Relocator, shows a hooded, Klan-like figure next to a bare cotton tree: this is, Walker says, partly inspired by the boll weevil cotton plague that – along with the violence many freed slaves endured – led many black families, including Walker’s, to abandon their land in the south for a better life in the northern states. “My own family were once given a piece of land,” she says. “I started thinking about what happened to that land; about what made so many people leave the south, whether it was social violence, or domestic terrorism, or economic strife.”
Kara Walker – The Daily Constitution 1878 The Daily Constitution 1878 (2011), by Kara Walker. Photograph: courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins, NY
Walker is at her most provocative when interrogating the stereotyping that defined race relations in the antebellum south, and still exists today. The largest room in her show is lined with “wall samplers”: the cut-out silhouettes that show figures engaged in violent or exaggerated acts: a man bending down to fellate an oversized phallus; a woman in a wide-skirted dress holding a severed head. The effect is to make us question not only the cultural representations of black people (there is, as Walker points out, a whiff of “minstrels and blackface” about some of the figures) but also our assumptions about how skin colour defines anyone’s physical characteristics and behaviour.

Walker has exhibited widely in the US, and at 27 (she’s now 43) became the youngest person ever to receive the prestigious MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” scholarship. But she has also caused controversy. Exhibitions of her work often provoke strong feelings: staff at a library in Newark, New Jersey, recently reacted with outrage when one of her drawings was displayed there, prompting the head librarian to cover it up. And back when she received the MacArthur grant, she was lambasted by several older African-American artists, including Betye Saar and Howardena Pindell. “There were two strains of criticism,” Walker says. “One was about the work, and who was looking at it, and me feeding into the viewing audience’s preconceived ideas about black people. And the other was that I was just some highfalutin so-and-so.”

Her father, the artist Larry Walker, published a letter in her defence. It was under his tutelage that she had first decided to become an artist: she started drawing and painting when she was three. She says neither of her parents has ever felt completely comfortable with her work – her mother walked out of a screening of Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale, a sexually explicit shadow-puppet film that features in the London show – but her father argued that his generation of black artists had fought to give future generations the right to make art of any sort. “He was saying, basically, that I should be able to do whatever the hell I want. I think that’s what I’m always battling against with my work – part of me wants to resist the pull to be doing what’s expected of me as a black artist.”

It was while studying art as an undergraduate in Atlanta that Walker first felt this pull: an expectation, from her professors and fellow students alike, that as a black artist she should be striving to represent the “black experience” positively. “I was making big paintings, with mythological themes. When I started painting black figures, the white professors were relieved, and the black students were like, ‘She’s on our side’. These are the kinds of issues that a white male artist just doesn’t have to deal with.”

A key moment came when Walker discovered Adrian Piper, the conceptual artist and philosopher who, in the 1970s, made a series of performance works featuring herself as an androgynous, racially indeterminate young man. “It was the first voice that resonated with me, in talking about race with objectivity and sternness,” she says. “Until then, I only knew ‘black art’ in the romantic sense – that it was only about positive representations of African American life.”

Walker began to think about what she really wanted to say. She was born in Stockton, California, and moved to an Atlanta suburb at the age of 13, when her father took a job there. After liberal California, the racial tensions of the south came as a shock. “I just didn’t get the rules,” she says. “I didn’t know what the story was that made people behave in very particular ways that I thought were prescripted and unnatural. I started looking for my own point of origin: maybe the point of origin was being American, or being black, or being a woman. I thought, ‘I’ll start with the foundation of this idea of a place, of America, and then work my way forward.’”

Walker sees a direct line between the racist historical attitudes she examines in her work and current events. She took a road trip last year with her daughter from Brooklyn, where she lives, to the southern states. They visited diners where the heads of old white men turned to give them “the 20-second stare”. They swam in a motel pool, watching the other (white) bathers suddenly vanish; Walker heard a small girl say to her father: “I thought there were no niggers here.”

Then there is the rise of the Tea Party movement, and the distasteful obsession with Barack Obama’s skin colour. “There’s so much suspicion around having a biracial president,” she says, “around Obama’s presence on the world stage – the fact that the Tea Party gets coverage as anything other than a fringe group. There’s nothing Obama can say or do as a black man that they’re [willing] to hear.”

Walker is by now used to viewers being discomfited not only by the fact that her work dares to speak openly about race and identity, but that it may even be making fun of such viewers. “It makes people queasy,” she says. “And I like that queasy feeling.”

Camden Arts Centre,
London NW3
Until 5 January