Working with exclusionary subject matter

When working with subject matter that could be considered exclusionary to a wider audience there is a big question around how to include the viewer in the work rather than causing them to feel alienated so that they become disinterested and don’t bother to engage. Many artists might have subject matter within their work which is personal and not necessarily understood by the viewer, but the work itself is inclusive enough and the subject matter abstract enough, that the viewer still feels comfortable questioning the work rather than feeling excluded.

Kara Walker is an artist who deals with potentially exclusionary subject matter in a very successful manner. Her common narrative is a whimsical yet brutal portrayal of slavery in the Southern USA. As an African American woman she is in a particular position that allows her to work with this subject matter in a very powerful way. The narratives are direct rather than oblique, the themes are blatant, there is no question what is being portrayed. For anyone other than an African American, this experience could be not only somewhat alienating, due to lack of experiential understanding, but could also be deeply uncomfortable, due to potential feelings of complicity in the fate of the slaves being depicted.

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Kara Walker. (1997) Slavery! Slavery! (section). Brooklyn Museum. Cut paper silhouettes.

Kara Walker has created an almost fairytale quality to the narratives using strangely postured figures cut from paper and arranged in staged scenes. She has claimed the use of the Victorian silhouette portrait, so popular with the white upperclass, and used it to tell her stories of conflicted interactions between the black and white populous of the antebellum south. The silhouettes have a playful quality that makes the viewer initially feel at ease, until the scenes are observed more closely and the brutality of some of the actions is made clear. In her 2000 work Insurrection! she also uses projections which create a life-size environment for both her paper figures and the viewer. The projectors are set in such a way that the viewer will walk in front to view the work and their silhouette is captured and added to those on the wall, transporting them into the narrative as their own shadowy caricature.

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Kara Walker. (2000) Insurrection! (section). Guggenheim. Cut paper silhouettes and projections.

Walker’s work is provocative in it’s use of racial stereotypes, antebellum ‘minstrel’ characters and perverted fairytale capering. But it’s this twisted humour that allows viewers to become involved in and question the work rather than feeling it is ‘not for them’. Addressing the issue of slavery in such a gregarious way has the potential to be very controversial and alienating to large sections of the public. But Kara Walker’s approach not only invites the viewer into the work, it also makes the viewer become a part of the work and gives them the opportunity to engage with her subject matter and her visual language.

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3 thoughts on “Working with exclusionary subject matter

  1. I think Kara Walker does this really well. In part I think it’s because the characters are engaging in a way that at first glance you look at them innocently, because they resonate with the memory of childhood fairytales, then after that initial moment of being drawn in, the content becomes clear and then it’s not so easy to escape!

    The fact that it looks like something else at first is cleverly interwoven into the concept. She makes the audience complicit (as you pointed out) by that secondary awareness that the work has been taken for granted in that very first moment of encounter… The shock of saying to yourself “this is beautiful” and then the subsequent dismay at your own reaction when the content hits home.

  2. Thought provoking and helpful, thanks Mary great post. Cleverly done and subtle by this artist, it’s a great example of how difficult subject matter can be present with wit and wisdom.

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