Sharon Walters is a London-based artist who creates hand-assembled collages celebrating Black women. Seeing Ourselves, Walter’s ongoing series, is an exploration of under-representation and an incitement to foster, nurture and take ownership over our own spaces.
“In Piecing It Together: Connecting Sharon Walters to Thomas, Ringgold, and Walker, Clara Enders makes an astute observation about the different reactions that myself and Kara Walker expect from our audiences. She rightly notes that, whereas Walker chooses to confront her audience with their own discomfort, I offer an encouraging space within which my audience can reflect on their own relationship with a history that is violent and exclusionary to Black women. Through my carefully constructed hand-assembled images, curated programmes, and collaborations, I simultaneously reference under-representation whilst using art as a form of self-care. The process of creating acts as an extension of my optimistic outlook on life. At its heart, Seeing Ourselves, is an insight into my own experiences as a woman from the African diaspora, and I make the conscious decision to reframe them in a celebratory and uplifting light.
When Blackness is so often equated as ‘other’, for me, it is essential to offer an alternative narrative of empowerment. This approach is significant because by simply celebrating my own Blackness, I am challenging every notion of Blackness as ‘other’. My work redresses the balance, and confronts under-representation when we are excluded from so many different areas. I address our struggles and our joy, by providing reassurance that you deserve the positive representation that you see in my work. I offer comfort in the places that many Black women have experienced hurt. Each piece is a reaffirmation of the right to ‘take up space’ even when you don’t see yourself in certain settings. It is important that I celebrate Black women, particularly when we are not always celebrated in the mainstream. Through my work, I strive to share multiple versions of Blackness, offering the reassurance that you are ‘allowed’ to be multifaceted. I oppose stereotypes that there is a singular Black experience, by sharing celebratory materials that provide representation in the spaces we need it most.
‘Taking up space’ is so important as a Black woman, when our voices have been systematically and institutionally silenced. Every collage, papercut, and collaborative engagement is a reaffirmation of my right (and the right of others) to ‘take up space’. Throughout my work, I assert myself into places where we, as Black women, are often denied representation. For me, the arts and heritage sector, as well as mainstream western media as a whole, have been uncomfortable and even hostile spaces at times. The idea of ‘taking up space’ is twofold in my work. As a Black artist and project curator, I have overcome many barriers that have inhibited my career for years. Additionally, my work empowers Black women, and gives them the confidence to feel beautiful, powerful, seen and heard, in the face of experiences that have made them feel otherwise. In a world where the artist was traditionally white and male, I know the importance of socially-engaged works of Black women, created by a Black woman. So as well as encouraging us to ‘take up space’, my work also nurtures the creation of our own spaces, and readdresses the balance in many areas of under-representation.
I firmly believe that art should engage with social and political issues by amplifying the voices of the silenced. Coming from a background in Social Sciences, my thoughts and learning have always been rooted in identity, although any ideas I had to create non-political art were taken away from me whilst studying for my Fine Art degree. A tutor was quick to tell me that in taking some self-portraits as a Black woman artist, I would instantly enter into a political and social debate. I remember the disappointment in how controversial the use of my portraits in my work seemingly was. Now, my work is a portal, allowing me to use my voice to instigate change in these arenas. I look at the ways in which we so often are desensitised to the whitewashing of historical stories and images in contemporary society, for example in women’s magazines, whose stories are collected and told in history. Who documents those stories and deems them as worthy?
At the start, my intention was to create images that show the nuances of Blackness. I wanted to represent Black women, where images of white women occupy the space. This desire has since been increasingly active. I’m currently working with the National Maritime Museum, looking at African heritage. We’re reworking and rewriting, focusing on social commentary, and on social change.
Accessibility in art is important to me, so exploring new ways of exhibiting outside of the traditional gallery system is imperative. I currently share much of my work on Instagram through my @london_artist1 account. It’s my primary way of sharing my work and the concept behind Seeing Ourselves. The platform has connected me with many individuals and organisations, including Hospital Rooms, Tate, and National Maritime Museum in the UK, as well as the prestigious American University, Cornell. Working with such a range of organisations allows my work to truly resonate with as many audiences as possible, in a meaningful and impactful way. Particularly during the global pandemic, my work has opened up to wider audiences. The ability to share my pieces without gallery representation has supported me throughout this time.”