American, born 1969
In Cotton, Kara Walker depicts the silhouette of a black woman who seems to have been bounced upwards by a blanket, like a puppet. Captured in midair, she is just beginning her descent into a pillowy bundle of cotton. But this is freshly picked, rather than thoroughly refined, cotton. It is spiked with the briars and seeds that cut the hands that pick it and is destined to injure anyone falling in. Walker is an expert at representing ingrained, even invisible, racist stereotypes in ways that make them newly unavoidable and noxious. The profitable demand for the cotton crop was used by many slave owners as sufficient justification for the institution of slavery. Because cotton needed to be laboriously picked by hand, so the argument went, how could its production remain profitable without slavery? In Walker's print, it appears as if the cotton plant itself—rather than the people seeking to profit from its cultivation and harvest—is dictating this woman's life.
Label from Overtime: The Art of Work, March 8–May 17, 2015