Kara Walker’s work first gained recognition in 1994 with the work, Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart. The artist’s work disturbs our expectations of both history and visual narrative in her nightmarish Antebellum scenes, where heroes and demons play multiple, shifting roles. In her coolly elegant silhouettes, there are no taboos, as her characters engage in a complex theatre of race, gender, and sex.
South African artist William Kentridge is best known for his meticulously crafted animations, made by filming his drawings as they are constructed and erased. Stand alone drawings, prints, tapestries, and sculptures often result as supporting artworks, resulting in an extensive oeuvre of darkly graphic imagery that is both expressionistic and playful. Kentridge began his college career with a desire to become an actor; his interest in theatre has continued throughout his career in numerous operatic productions.
Kentridge’s parents were both lawyers, well known for their defense of apartheid victims. While his somber images often allude to undercurrents of oppression and tension, an over arching theme in his work is the duality of human experience in both personal and political terms.
American artist Sarah Peters explores issues of faith and disappointment in her sculptures and drawings. She states:
In my work, I’m interested in people who fervently pursue ideals, only to have this pursuit end in disillusionment.
In Appeal to Heaven, Peters imagines the hope and devotion that drove the American pilgrims to make the difficult voyage across the Atlantic, and the bewilderment and distress they must have experienced as over half perished during the first winter.
Lynne Allen’s prints and sculptures extend a collaboration with her Native American great grandmother, Josephine Waggoner, a poet and historian of the Lakota tribal history. Waggoner was sent to the Hampton Institute in Virginia as a white “experiment” to see if the natives of America could be educated with freed slaves. At age eighteen, she returned to her South Dakota reservation with the ability to read and write in English, and became a prolific writer, detailing the history of the tribe with illustrations that often augmented the text. During her lifetime she received no recognition for her activities, and her record keeping went largely unnoticed.
In her work, Allen gives voice to a soul who, because of circumstance, heritage, and gender would otherwise be forgotten by history, while investigating her own relationship to this continuum.
Allen writes of her work:
The objects and prints I make remind us of those contested spaces between domination and struggle, strength and weakness, wrongs committed and rights uncorrected. Although seemingly disconnected, they hold a complex layer of meaning that operates within the personal and private, and the public and historical.
American artist Duke Riley describes himself as an “artist and patriot.” Indeed, the wide variety of his artist production (including drawing, mosaic, installation and performance) is preoccupied with both true and imagined history that exuberantly embraces the whimsical.
Art critic Eleanor Heartney writes:
Duke Riley’s imagined histories, illegal performances and dioramic installations tap into that fast disappearing world, blending fact and fancy in a way that reminds us that history is anything but an objective science. The starting point for Riley’s conceits is almost always some obscure historical event or circumstance, but his reweaving of history inevitably enmeshes him in contemporary concerns as well.
Artist Skylar Fein’s work:
…is primarily influenced by history, mass-produced commodities and popular culture, which tap into overt visual traditions and address the politics of sexuality, class and subcultures.
In his work, the Lincoln Bedroom, Fein reconstructs the room Abraham Lincoln shared with Joshua Speed in the 1830s in Springfield, IL. Here, Fein highlights an aspect of Lincoln’s history that has been debated by scholars: Why did Lincoln share a tiny room, sleeping in the same bed, with Joshua Speed, when he had many other housing options available at the time?
Fein uses his artwork as a vehicle for the excavation of truths traditional history has neglected to record. In Number Language, Fein describes a code developed by African Americans working in the cotton industry to covertly communicate with each other.
Digital collage artist and Adelphi University alumni Monica Chulewicz suffers from mitochondrial disease, which affects her memory and perception of time.
In her words:
I suffer from a progressive disease that has forced me to deal with my own mortality head on. Memories are often erased from my mind, and people disappear from my memory to later return. My collages express the rhythms of my own recollections; often elements recede from the foreground, while others push quietly to center stage.
My collages are a collection of memories from a past that is unknown to me. I overlay vintage photographs I have collected to create a dialogue between history, memory, and time that addresses themes of existence, fragility, and mortality.
Patricia Olynyk’s on-going collaborative project titled The Mutable Archive, engages a wide array of individuals to consider the possible histories of the largely anonymous skulls held in the Mutter Medical Museum collection in Philadelphia. The artist writes:
With this work, a series of writers, scholars, historians, medical ethicists, philosophers, and a medium (were) commissioned to create fictional biographies for a collection of skulls from the Mutter Museum, which I photographed during my artist residency at the College of Physicians several years ago. Archival data, factual errors, personal biases, and the writers’ own conjectures and longings will guide them as they engage their own processes of history and identity construction.
Ken Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynchings, feature historic images of lynching with the victims erased from the scene. The result is a disorienting view that suggest undercurrents of tension and violence, yet fail to deliver a source. Gonzales-Day writes about this body of work:
The Erased Lynching series (2000-2013) initially came about as an artistic response to the fact that racially motivated lynching and vigilantism had been underrepresented, and even misrepresented, in a number of historical texts when I began the project in 2000. My specific interest in this particular topic grew out of concern over the increased tensions that began to emerge along Mexico's boarder after 9/11. A new breed of vigilantes had begun to take up arms. In light of these and other events, the project sought to highlight the then little known fact that race was a contributing factor in California's own history of lynching and vigilantism.
Regarding his work, Gonzales-Day continues:
As an artistic gesture, these absences or empty spaces become emblematic of a forgotten history — made all the more palpable in light of our expanding understanding of America's history of lynching.
Artist Maureen Cummins mines the past to reveal a new understanding of history in her artist books. Her work often includes extensive research, with the artist traveling across the United States to archives and museum collections to secure information and contextual insight. The artist writes of her book, Anthro(A)pology:
Anthro(A)pology, (is) a satirical look at the history of scientific racism —how pseudo-scientific images, charts, and diagrams have been used to “teach racism.”
While the book is a scathing examination of the role images play in the social construction of racism, it simultaneously celebrates the value of archives: by keeping and protecting books and other cultural artifacts, archives also keep alive the process of intellectual examination and questioning.