Category Archives: History

The Slave Trade, in Silhouette

Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart
Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart

The Atlantic Slave Trade, in Silhouette

Antebellum plantation life is something that all-too-often white America rehashes in a myriad of ways from subdivisions bulldozed into the hillsides of southern states with names like ‘Saint James Plantation’ to naming Gone with the Wind on lists of ‘best novels’ without a hint of irony, analysis, or even an (unacceptable) apologetic cringe.  This rehashing reiterates the racism used to justify slavery in America and brings it very much into the present with, often, a complete lack of awareness.  Artist Kara Walker faces head-on these issues, and more, when she addresses the representation of race, racism, and slavery with her unflinching paper-cut silhouettes displaying the violence of the Atlantic slave trade and the harrowing reality of sexual violence, commodification of human lives, and racial stereotypes.  She says herself, “Most pieces have to do with exchanges of power, attempts to steal power away from others.” Her work is powerful and welcome in a world that too often tries to sugar coat, dismiss, or otherwise contend that we should all ‘move on’.

Kara Walker and her Art

Kara Walker was born in 1969 in Stockton, California and moved to Georgia at 13.  She studied art at Atlanta College of Art and Rhode Island School of Design receiving her BA and BFA, respectively, in 1991 and 1994. Her work has shown internationally at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum voor Modern Kunst (The Netherlands); and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Among many, many others that you can see on her exhibition page. She’s well-known for her work in silhouette, but keep in mind that she also works in painting and media.

But for this post, though, I’ll be looking specifically at her work in silhouette.  Which is killer powerful.  Using the medium of the paper cut silhouette Walker alludes to the 18th century bourgeois elite that popularized the art form and, in doing so, creates a collision of juxtaposed ideas: rather than the paper-cut silhouette telling the story of privilege it tells the story of what the elite, or the oppressor, did throughout slavery. The pastoral placidity of silhouettes exist in stark contrast to the images that regale the viewer with vicious, disruptive images of slavery, violence, and racist stereotypes. It’s a reflection of the dynamic that exists in America on the topic of slavery: the placid pretending of an issue that has past with the trauma of the truth – both past and present. You can listen to her discuss paper-cut silhouette and the meaning it has for her.


Sexual Violence and the Slave Trade

Sexual violence is a recurring theme in Walker’s work.  In the image below, we see a white slave owner seated, literally, on the shoulders of a young enslaved boy, which positions the owner to receive oral sex from a young enslaved woman kneeling in front of him.  The young boy calls to mind the condemned Atlas, destined forever to carry the weight of (depending on which version you prefer) the sky, Earth, or Uranus. The young woman, hesitant in her body language, is forced into her prone position by the guiding hand of the man who owns her (or might, given the widespread sexual violation of enslaved women by the men who enslaved them).  His hand hovers delicately above her head, as if he were penning a letter to his sister, or about to pick up a cup of tea. But this wolf cloaked in sheep’s clothing, as-it-were, is exactly the point.  The silhouette of the white owner brings to mind images of founding fathers with their neatly powdered wigs, ruffled shirts, and high collars.  This comparison, given that so many of the founding fathers owned slaves (including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson), asks the viewers to consider who slave owners actually were that were capable of such loathsome behavior.  It could be easy to dismiss a slave owner who raped his slave as a violent monster and the exception.  But what if he were a well-respected community leader?  Or the President of the United States?   Viewers must reconsider the inhumanity of slavery, and who the perpetrators were, and whether this vicious sexual violence and oppression was actually the norm as opposed to the exception.  With deft snips of her scissors, Walker captures the exploitation of enslaved people who were commodified in order to support an economic system that lived and breathed cotton. As Kara Walker says herself, “My works are erotically explicit, shameless. I would be happy if visitors would stand in front of my work and feel a bit ashamed—ashamed because they have…simply believed in the project of modernism.”

Kara Walker The Emancipation Approximation
detail from Kara Walker’s The Emancipation Approximation


Likewise, we see sexual violence again in the below image, this time between a white boy and enslaved black girl.  The innocent image of two children playing in a field on a sunny day turns on its head as the girl, crouched on her knees, performs oral sex on the boy who seems entirely absorbed in his playful day and unaware of the trauma his role in race and racism creates. It’s disturbing at the very least and, again, that’s the point. When white America romanticizes antebellum plantations they might think of Scarlett O’Hara, sweet Southern accents, and buoyant gowns. But they might do better to also be thinking of this:

detail, kara walker



Truth about the Slave Trade: Then and Now

Walker’s work asks viewers to consider what’s really happening in a piece.  Is it real? What is the line between imagination and fantasy?  And have fantasies allowed for the exploitation of human lives throughout slavery and to the present day? Are the feelings happening inside the viewer occurring because of Walker’s work or because of a complicated interplay between her work and the individual viewer’s unique perceptions of race, racism, and the history of slavery in America? Walker invites the viewer to consider the true story of slavery as opposed to the story that is told in American classrooms – glossed over and put aside. Her work is provocative, upsetting, disturbing, and powerful.

Walker successfully takes the viewer on a journey into the truths of slavery and racism and how the viewer has been complicit.  She doesn’t instruct the viewer but instead allows us to sit with our own discomfort.  She says herself:

“I don’t know how much I believe in redemptive stories, even though people want them and strive for them. They’re satisfied with stories of triumph over evil, but then triumph is a dead end. Triumph never sits still. Life goes on. People forget and make mistakes. Heroes are not completely pure, and villains aren’t purely evil. I’m interested in the continuity of conflict, the creation of racist narratives, or nationalist narratives, or whatever narratives people use to construct a group identity and to keep themselves whole—such activity has a darker side to it, since it allows people to lash out at whoever’s not in the group. That’s a contact thread that flummoxes me.”

Walker does not shy away from the trauma of the Atlantic slave trade, the realities of slavery, or the pervasive racist stereotype. She forces the viewer to confront these painful realities and racism (even if internalized) and to consider what role we have played in ignoring, romanticizing, supporting, or silencing by allowing us to sit with our own discomfort without assurances or exit. It’s not a comfortable experience, looking at her work.  But somehow it’s a relief (in the way that honesty can be an uncomfortable relief) to see the train wreck of truth and lies that pervade this country splashed, literally, across a wall. Her work is a welcome antithesis of cheery book-list recommendations suggesting Gone with the Wind as one of the 50 best novels and the pandemic of newly-bulldozed subdivisions bearing the word, somewhere in their name, ‘Plantation’.

And you can see her work soon, too. Check out her upcoming exhibit in Brooklyn this May. It’s showing in a Domino Sugar warehouse, no less. Like I said, she doesn’t mince words. Or silhouettes.

images via Ozarts etc


“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” : The Political Power of the Image

In this endlessly interconnected internet age, the idea that an image can have a profound and widespread impact hardly needs to be explained; it’s implicit. The advent of both photography– the way in which potent images of current events could be quickly and realistically produced– and the internet–the way in which they could be widely and rapidly disseminated–hastened and increased the importance of this phenomenon of images used to provoke political discussion.  And an image can in fact be worth a thousand words; in cases from India’s struggle for independence, to the 1960’s civil rights movement, to the war in Syria today, images of social injustice and war have been able to provoke if not a direct solution, the conversation that brought that solution about.  But while modern technology expedited the rise of disseminated images provoking social change, it was not solely responsible; this phenomenon was able to take place before the camera was invented, before the internet was invented.  It took place, for instance, in 1787, with the engraving by Josiah Wedgewood of a kneeling, chained and supplicant slave, with the powerful words below: “Am I not a friend and a brother?”





This image didn’t come out of the blue; it was made for specifically for the purpose of moving hearts and minds.  The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in 1787 by Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson.  While the founders themselves were Anglican, the movement was popular amongst Quakers, who made up the other 9 founding members; these were William Dillwyn, John Barton, George Harrison, Samuel Hoare Jr., Joseph Hooper, John Lloyd, Joseph Woods, James Phillips and Richard Phillip, and later Josiah Wedgwood. Clarkson had campaigned for the movement previously and became the first historian for Britain’s abolition movement; Wedgewood was the 13th son of Thomas Wedgewood and a political reformer involved with the Unitarian Church.


Just a quick glance at the image reveals how pathos-evoking it must have been at the time.  The figure is strong, vital, well-muscled; yet his circumstances have bent him in two, forcing him to beg for the basic rights that should be his due. His wrists are shackled to his ankles; it’s unlikely he’s able to stand up to full height. Even were he not in this unnatural position of supplication, he would not be able to stand as an autonomous agent should be able to do. His facial expression is nearly blank, numbed; but his lips are parted, as if to enunciate the words at the bottom of the image. Like Shylock asking “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” the caption states baldly that what in the distorted current structure of society should be a rhetorical question, is a genuine question because of how warped standards had become. “Am I not a man and a brother?” Is he? Whether or not a black man is human is of course a rhetorical question to the modern reader– but whether it was rhetorical or not would be less evident for the 19th century reader, and would force reflection. The question became the catchphrase of the British and American abolition movements, and the image was widely reproduced. Men purchased snuffboxes with the image; ladies wore bracelets and hairpins. According to David Dabydeen for BBC History, the image became “the most famous image of a black person in all of 18th century art.” In Joseph Hothschild’s book “Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery,” the author argues that “Wedgewood’s kneeling African, the equivalent of the label buttons we wear for electoral campaigns, was probably the first widespread use of a logo designed for a political cause.” This particular image wasn’t just harrowing and politically effective; it was landmark.


Sidiya Hartman notes in her book “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route” that the image is perhaps more insidious than it may at first seem. While it is clear that the figure is on bended knee, she argues that he is less begging God for freedom than the people of Britain, France and America, which, to the modern ancestor of slaves, is far more demoralizing. To ask God for your freedom is one thing; to ask fellow humans is quite another.   The man in the image is begging for freedom, and the image itself begs those who see it to open their minds and hearts.


Other images were used towards the same end as Wedgewood’s, though none were quite as widespread or as effective. In 1792, John Kimber, the captain of the Recovery, was tried for the murder of two female slaves while the ship embarked on the infamous Middle Passage.  While the cause of the captain’s displeasure isn’t clear, we do know that he ordered the girl hoisted up by ship’s rigging by one leg and flogged, with the process repeated on her other leg.  Tragically and unsurprisingly, she died from her injuries.  The image is stark, and disturbing; though in contrast to “Am I,” the image is deliberately and perversely sexualized, intended to provoke certainly, though to what end remains to be seen.


Slavery is a dark and peculiar case in the history of politically motivated imagery; but even as it is atypical (because it was the most severe of causes, because it predates the examples that followed), it is crucial to understanding how to make people understand problems they wish not to see.  The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade didn’t succeed in their goal for Britain until 1833, and for the United States until 1864.  But that goal was in fact ultimately realized; and, in part, due to the ubiquitous image that branded the painful image of the subjection of slavery into the consciousness of those who would have, and could have, otherwise turned a blind eye.