Throughout the world’s history, trouble has scourged many unfortunate souls. Struggles have ensnared many people in the world, in many different forms: financial hardship, relationship difficulties, political controversies, and more.

One of the main problems in history of humanity is slavery. This is, to say the least, an ugly business, fueling the torment of all those victimised by its cruel embrace.

It perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise that many artists have sought to tackle this immensely dark subject. Chief among these artists is Kara Walker, an African-descended genius born in 1969.

Walker uses her artwork to apply a historical approach to matters which can be described as, at best, touchy and, at worst, brutal, including racial issues, gender issues and slavery. African culture also features in her work, specifically with regards to stories from African history which have been suppressed or otherwise tampered with. Perhaps, with the overtones of slavery, Walker may be seeking a sense of liberation. The truth, as they say, sets you free.

Walker achieved prominence in 2014 when Creative Time (a non-profit artistic organisation) hosted her first public event, A Subtlety, based in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory. As a nod to the building in which the event was held, Walker created a sugar-coated sphinxlike woman. A unique approach, it must surely be noted. Later, in 2016, the Frieze in New York included her piece Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994) as one of its key works over the past 25 years.

Walker’s artwork tends to operate in silhouettes, so as to provide something of an illusory quality to the work. There is something paradoxical in the fact that, through the silhouettes, much is depicted while little is given away. An example of a silhouette-based work, specifically with regards to slavery, is Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On) (2000).

There are five distinguishable figures portrayed in silhouettes. Given what can be made of their clothing, their appears to be a difference in the background: there are two figures in flowing dresses, while another has what look like sticks protruding from his neck, with suggestions of indigenous origin. Such difference in background and possibly class (with the enslaved connotations of the supposedly indigenous figure) is suggested, but not clearly represented.

This sense of ambiguity is further enhanced by the difficulty on the part of the viewer in distinguishing separate limbs of the figures. Light usually shines behind the picture to evoke the animated films of the thirties, and perhaps to juxtapose with the shadiness of the silhouettes. This is an approach which throws the metaphorically shady practice of slavery into a far more literal type of shade.

There is much to be commended with regards to tackling challenging subjects, especially in a creative way. This is exactly what Kara Walker has done in her silhouetted portrayal of the often brutal history of her origins. She has clearly chosen a subject close to her heart, as she has herself noted that “I think really the whole problem with racism and its continuing legacy in this country is that we simply love it. Who would we be without the ‘struggle’?”

– Luke Mayo, Correspondent (Art)

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