Surprisingly, Kara Walker hasn't had a solo show in the UK before. Having been named one of the top 100 influential people in America by Time magazine, and one of most well-known artists in the US, she is hardly new on the scene. Many people here will already be familiar with her work too.
As an artist who has divided her audience and received negative responses from the African American community, she is no stranger to controversy. Walker's work is assaulting, haunting and shocking in its use of antebellum imagery (figures from the era preceding the American Civil War) and of plantation life. At its heart, Walker's work deals with racism, both from past atrocities during the American Civil War and up to the present day. Her use of negative stereotypes and her co-option of the hyper-sexualised black figure are what have raised eyebrows. These figures, so dominant in history, haven't gone away, she believes, and still pervade our collective understanding of how black people are seen and see themselves.
Employing the terms and names of the past, Walker often crosses the line of what is tasteful and acceptable today. She is always keen to make the connection between the past and the present day, and much of her subject matter comes from historical situations coupled with more recent tensions, such as the white supremacist movement, gun crime, or the Obama government.
Walker is most well-known for her trademark silhouettes pasted directly onto gallery walls, and they take up much of the space in the Camden Arts Centre's largest room. These panoramas feature scenes of sexual depravity and violence, and create something like a cinematic narrative. Her use of the silhouette strikes a chord with the idea of stereotypes: flattened and vague, they lack detail, but suggest so much. She continues her interest in shadows in the third gallery space with a shadow puppetry film entitled Fall Frum Grace - Miss Pipi's Blue Tale; the story as horrific as the rest of her work.
Whilst this exhibition may not be large, it does contain a new style of Walker's work not seen before in the UK. Her series of graphite drawings are described by Walker as dust jackets for books that are yet to be written. Entitled Dust Jackets for the Nigerrati, Walker directly references the Harlem Renaissance intellectuals, as they were described by New York editor Wallace Thurman. Other moments in history pervade her work; one drawing in particular features the lynching of a woman that Walker found described in detail in The Daily Constitution, 1878.
The graphite pieces mark a departure from Walker's silhouette work and in a sense, a loss of some of her power. By employing silhouette and puppetry techniques, Walker was able to draw on the wealth of associations that both these crafts and their narratives conjure. Playing on the tension between children's tales and provocative and disturbing content causes a disorientation that has earned Walker much admiration. But what is lost in this change of medium is gained in the passion and direct hand of the artist herself. Walker radically challenges the history and representation of the black community, earning herself much criticism from other black artists such as Betye Saar, who campaigned to have her pictures removed from public galleries. But as a sharp intellectual – she was the second youngest recipient of the prestigious "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation – Walker refuses the assumption that there can only be one black history. Preferring a history that acknowledges fantasy, facts and illusions, Walker lets her artwork explode the boundaries. She will be criticised – a fact she is fully aware of – but her artwork is unforgettable.