The history of racism in America, the violence perpetuated by one group upon another, motherhood, and gender roles past and present: these are the subjects of the contemporary artist Kara Walker, most powerfully enunciated in her chosen form of the silhouette. Sampler with Mothers is a prime embodiment of these themes. Riven with the same imagery as the Auntie Walker’s Sampler pieces that were the centerpieces of Walker’s landmark 2013 exhibition at London’s Camden Arts Center, the present work inverts the artist’s usual palette of black-on-white by carving out white space from a black surface. Composed of four sheets of paper hewn together, it features eleven silhouettes that construe Walker's symbolic exposure of the crimes of slavery.
It is a powerful image, laden with ambiguities that ask us to question our perception of the past. The art historian G. D. Shaw has noted: “Walker plumps the unspeakable regions of our American collective memory as a way to confront spectators with their own psychological repression of negative historical imagery” (G. D. Shaw, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker, Durham and London, 2004, p. 18). The silhouette, typically a motif within nineteenth century American family portraits and book illustrations, is here shot through with realist darkness. It is also granted a sense of motion and moment akin to that of cinema, a key interest that has influenced Walker. Sampler with Mothers represents a distilled screenshot of Walker’s potent art.