Focus on Kara Walker

[05 Jan 2021]

Alternative stories, irreverent humor, reinterpretations of the past, appeals for a new contemporary conscience… Kara WALKER’s work has quickly found a prominent place in Contemporary art. In 1994, having just graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with an MFA (Master of Fine Arts), her work was shown at the Drawing Center in New York in a ‘powerful’ exhibition that propelled the young woman onto the international art scene. Her visual signature was apparent from the start: large black paper cut-out silhouettes, reminiscent of certain salon art of the 18th and 19th centuries. Beyond its aesthetic efficacity, the works’ force comes, above all, from the gravity of the subjects: Walker explores subjugation, racism and sexism in American history.
By their arrangement on the walls, the paper silhouettes generate confused interpretations. Has the artist really depicted a lynching scene… or is it just my imagination? It is precisely here, in this suggestive interpretation zone, that the symbolic violence of Walker’s work is concentrated.

In 2007, Time Magazine ranked her among the 100 most influential people in the world.

Her sketches challenging stereotypes have not always been understood for what they denounce. The artist has faced fierce controversies, especially after receiving the MacArthur scholarship when she was 28. At the time, she was accused of showing degrading pornographic images of African Americans. Fortunately, supporters of her work outnumber detractors and in 2002 Walker represented the United States at the 25th International São Paulo Biennial in Brazil. In 2007, Time Magazine ranked her among the 100 most influential people in the world.

Her meteoric progress appears to have peaked in 2007 with a mid-career retrospective organized at the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis) and an invitation to the Venice Biennale. Seductive in form, engaging in substance, her work quickly won over major New York collectors, especially as the artist was promoted by powerful galleries such as Lehmann Maupin, Victoria Miro and Sikkema Jenkins & co. Her work has also been acquired by a number of museums, including the Guggenheim, the MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London and the MAXXI in Rome.

Turnover - Geographic distributionKara Walker: Turnover at auction – Geographic distribution (copyright


Her most sought-after works

Walker works uses a variety of media: monotype texts, drawing, paintings, shadow puppets, animated films and even sculpture. She caused a sensation by creating a sculpture in sugar of a giant sphinx (23 meters long) with the features of a stereotypical black nurse in Brooklyn’s former Domino sugar refinery. The ephemeral sculpture drew thousands of visitors between May and July 2014, but for collectors her paper silhouettes remain her most popular works.

Until 2008, all Kara Walker’s works submitted to auction found buyers, without exception.

Her small collages usually sell for 20 to 30 thousand dollars, with prices climbing very quickly for larger works. Last October, a set of two large cut-out silhouettes fetched $120,000 in an online sale hosted by Christie’s. Her auction record stands at $502,000 for a 3-meter work sold in 2019, four years after being shown at the Victoria Miro gallery (Four Idioms on Negro Art #4 Primitivism, 2015).

Her prices inflated very rapidly until 2005 (already 15 years ago) when a large wall-collage sold for nearly $330,000 at Sotheby’s (The Battle of Atlanta: Being the Narrative of a Negress…). At the time, and up until 2008, all Kara Walker’s works submitted to auction found buyers, without exception. Collectors of her work still have to be quick since few works reach the market: about a dozen per year, not many for such a coveted artist. Fortunately, she has created a number multiples in the form of engravings and lithographs in limited and precious editions. Thanks to this offer, a third of the works by this immense artist are accessible for less than $5,000.

Chronological progressionKara Walker: Turnover at auction – chronological progression (copyright