Seeing the Unspeakable

The Art of Kara Walker

Seeing the Unspeakable

Book Pages: 208 Illustrations: 44 illus. (incl. 10 in color) Published: December 2004

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

One of the youngest recipients of a MacArthur “genius” grant, Kara Walker, an African American artist, is best known for her iconic, often life-size, black-and-white silhouetted figures, arranged in unsettling scenes on gallery walls. These visually arresting narratives draw viewers into a dialogue about the dynamics of race, sexuality, and violence in both the antebellum South and contemporary culture. Walker’s work has been featured in exhibits around the world and in American museums including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney. At the same time, her ideologically provocative images have drawn vociferous criticism from several senior African American artists, and a number of her pieces have been pulled from exhibits amid protests against their disturbing representations. Seeing the Unspeakable provides a sustained consideration of the controversial art of Kara Walker.

Examining Walker’s striking silhouettes, evocative gouache drawings, and dynamic prints, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw analyzes the inspiration for and reception of four of Walker’s pieces: The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, John Brown, A Means to an End, and Cut. She offers an overview of Walker’s life and career, and contextualizes her art within the history of African American visual culture and in relation to the work of contemporary artists including Faith Ringgold, Carrie Mae Weems, and Michael Ray Charles. Shaw describes how Walker deliberately challenges viewers’ sensibilities with radically de-sentimentalized images of slavery and racial stereotypes. This book reveals a powerful artist who is questioning, rather than accepting, the ideas and strategies of social responsibility that her parents’ generation fought to establish during the civil rights era. By exploiting the racist icons of the past, Walker forces viewers to see the unspeakable aspects of America’s racist past and conflicted present.


“[A] rich, careful, and important exploration of one of America’s most significant artists: Kara Walker. . . . Seeing the Unspeakable is especially important for readers interested in how the suppression of African American art history has influenced contemporary artists.” — Christine Hamm , Altar Magazine

“[T]his is a measured and always interesting account of what is constantly challenging work.” — Alan Rice, Journal of American Studies

“As we work like Kara Walker to build a just and post-racist society, this important artist is discussed thoughtfully and appreciatively by a serious scholar in a well-written book.” — Michael R. Mosher , Leonardo Reviews

“Shaw has created a useful and readable text that provides entry points into understanding Walker’s art and the discourses surrounding it. Her excavations of the various aspects of Walker’s work are carefully written and engaging to readers who are familiar with African American history, culture, and art history as well as those who are learning about these sources for the first time through Walker’s art. She has managed to organize a truly unwieldy subject, allowing it to maintain its dynamism while discussing it in a digestible fashion. Seeing the Unspeakable is a fascinating study of Walker’s art and a model for further examinations of the challenge of contemporary art.”
— Bridget R. Cooks, CAA Reviews

"[A] timely collection of essays dedicated to disentangling the intricacies of Kara Walker's disturbing and evocative artworks. . . . DuBois Shaw's book should be appreciated as the first notable attempt to position Walker's impressive body of work solidly within a rigorous scholarly framework."

— Derek Conrad Murray , Parachute

"Shaw's 'reading' of [Walker's work] is intriguing and seemingly flawless. . . . Those interested in art history and issues of race and representation will surely find this book rewarding, but possibly unsettling." — KaaVonia Hinton , Foreword Reviews

"Shaw's book places [Kara Walker's] work within a larger artistic canon, which contextualizes the significance of her works and the phenomenal artistic talent. . . . [A]ccesible. . . . [E]venhanded. . . ." — Tracey Lewis , Black Issues Book Review

Seeing the Unspeakable is an extremely important work. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is the first writer to place this controversial young artist’s work firmly in an art historical perspective. She combines careful scrutiny of the art’s formal traits with wide-ranging iconographic analysis, canny theoretical interpretation, and a revelatory examination of the work’s critical reception. The result is an extraordinary piece of scholarship.” — Judith Wilson, University of California, Irvine

“It is not easy to write a scholarly work on a living artist whose talent for generating controversy at times obscures her formidable creative talent. However, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw has done it, with remarkable intelligence and style. She brilliantly contextualizes Kara Walker’s work in terms of art history and African American history in a book that will be of tremendous value to scholars across many disciplines.” — Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Her website provides more information about the author.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1. Tracing Race and Representation 11

2. The “Rememory” of Slavery 37

3. The Lactation of John Brown 67

4. Censorship and Reception 103

5. Final Cut 125

Conclusion 153

Notes 157

Index 187
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3396-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3361-6
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