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September 2016


The focus of my research centers on the contemporary work of Georgia-based artist, Kara Elizabeth Walker. In conducting extensive research on the life of the artist as well as three select artworks which recall the antebellum slave era within the south, I argue the explicit presence of the power of the enslaved prepubescent girl and young woman. The three select works that I intend to analyze are Burn, a cut-paper silhouette on canvas created in 1998, The Invisible Beauty, a mixed media piece made in 2001, and Cut, a paper cut-out silhouette made in 1998.

In a time where one’s power and freedom were both stripped away upon entering the prison-like confines of a plantation home, the life of a slave (a female slave in this case) was committed to grueling housework, the rearing of her slave master’s children in the place of her own, sexual exploitation and merciless beatings, humiliation, submission to her white counterparts, and in many cases, the occasion of rape. Walker’s intense, overtly erotic and disturbing life-size (and larger than life size) interpretations of the Antebellum south force a stirred emotion within her viewers, so as to implicate them upon viewing.

Utilizing methodologies such as formal analysis, feminist deconstruction, semiotic analysis, and psychoanalytic theory, I will prove that Walker’s work is not only a provocative rendition of the horrors of the slave era, but also a way to deconstruct the notion of the female slave as a powerless individual and counter that thought process with a more powerful, authoritative, aggressive, and sexually autonomous image of a female slave, as well as the authority reflected in herself as a contemporary African American artist.

*As a disclaimer and out of personal respect to my readers, I caution that there are phrases in my article that may be considered offensive, given their racial nature. The artist has used these terms as a way to describe the figures in her works of art. While they may be offensive, I feel they are necessary to bolster my arguments of racial stereotypes of enslaved females, which over time have been socially constructed and historically situated.

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Research Award Essay