Substantial Silhouettes


The limitations of the silhouette would seem to hamstring its communicative abilities as an artistic medium. There is only a shadowed outline. At best, you can identify what you see—a person’s profile or object’s shape—but there is no way to clearly convey expression or emotion with these cutouts. Instead, an artist can only convey physical action.

Kara Walker’s work pushes against all of these restrictions. Her show at the Whitney— Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love—reveals how subversive and disturbing a silhouette can be. Focused on the untold narratives of African Americans in the South, Walker’s work satirizes race, gender and sexuality.

Like an antique frieze, "Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart" stretches out for 50 feet, occupying the walls of an entire gallery. A viewer’s eyes first pass over the shapes, not really identifying the gruesome and disturbing actions taking place: a suited gentleman steals a kiss from a girl while nearby a young child displays a strangled goose for a woman lying supine at his feet. A male figure’s head and arms disappear underneath a woman’s skirt, her legs and arms violently splayed.

Scatological, fanciful yet violent and uncomfortably confessional, Walker’s work belies the banal medium she has chosen. By emphasizing the gap between what is seen and not seen, the horrors that her shadows hide take on the same all-too-real substance of nightmares.

Photo credit: Kara Walker, Cut (Wikipedia)

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