Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (annotated)

October 1, 2007
Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (annotated) (detail

Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (annotated), 2005, by Kara Walker. Offset lithography and silkscreen, portfolio of 15 prints, ed. 35/35, each 39 x 53 inches. Purchased with funds provided by Monica M. and Richard D. Segal, the Neely Family, and Barbra and Andrew Rothschild.

Kara Walker's work addresses the persistent legacy of slavery in American culture, with its racial and gender stereotypes and myths. For this portfolio, Walker produced enlargements of prints from Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War, first published in 1866. Harper's Pictorial History has long been an inspiration for Walker, both for what it depicted about the war and for what it left out.

She overlaid Civil War battle scenes from the book with her own cutouts of African-American figures. The solid black silhouettes interrupt and haunt the scenes as ghostly, larger-than-life reminders of the violence and oppression endured by slaves.

Since the 1990s, Walker has used the technique of cut-paper silhouettes placed on white backgrounds. Historically, this type of silhouette was used to decorate eighteenth- and nineteenth-century middle-class homes. Walker appropriates the technique to stage scenes illustrating racial suppression while interweaving Civil War iconography and racist stereotypes. She highlights the similarities between the silhouette and the nature of African-American stereotypes, in which complex details of individuals are reduced or generalized into easily recognizable outlines.

Born in California, Walker moved to Atlanta at age twelve when her father took a job as a professor at Georgia State University. She studied at the Atlanta College of Art and received her M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1997,
she became the youngest person ever awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Achievement Award.