The Contemporary Silhouette

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The recent renaissance of the silhouette in the work of the contemporary American artist Kara Walker casts a new light on the history of the practice, causing us to look again at an art form that for many has become quintessentially genteel and archaic.

Walker's controversial installations examine black history through the use of large-scale silhouettes, cut in series. Much of her recent work has focused on slavery narratives set in the southern states of America in the pre-civil war era.

Walker's choice of medium works on a number of different levels. The heyday of silhouette portraiture coincided with the height of the international trade in slaves. By using silhouettes, Walker reclaims the art of the masters to represent those whose identities were effectively erased in this commerce. She has described silhouette portraits as 'black holes', suggesting that the identities she reconstructs with them are intentionally ambiguous. For Walker's purposes, silhouettes and stereotypes operate in a similar way by reducing individuals to bare outlines

In many ways, Walker exploits tensions that were always present in silhouette portraiture; from its denigration as the popular choice to the perennial superstitions surrounding shadows and the colour black. In a visual world where all flesh is black, she forces us to confront both historical and contemporary prejudices surrounding race, class and gender.

Top: Composite image, from left to right:

- John Henry Alexander; Mr Weekes; John Francis Theodon; John Lloyd , 1832
- Mrs Robert Beveridge; Anne Beveridge; Andrew Beveridge; Hugh Beveridge; Robert Beveridge
, 1832
- Jane Anderson; Esther Ainslie; Helena Anderson; Mrs Arkley; Charles Atherton
, circa 1830
- Sarah Siddons; Tyrone Power; Tyrone Power, 1832

4 silhouettes by Augustin Edouart (1789-1861)