Doris Salcedo: Moral-Political Art and Suffering

Subject: Art
Pages: 12
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One of Salcedo’s most successful pieces of art was Shibboleth that was created in 2007 at Tate Modern in London. To understand the moral and political aspect of the art, and how it portrays suffering in society, it will be necessary to have a brief analysis of this artist. Born in politically troubled Colombia, she went through the pain of the disappearance of her loved ones. As a young child, she had to endure a lot of pain due to the political unrest in Columbia. Some of her family members were murdered, while others were forced to fight for the government. She moved to New York from Columbia to further her education in fine arts (Cole 85). In the United States, the political troubles in Columbia were unheard of, and the society seemed to live in harmony. However, a keen analysis of the society revealed that there was a big scar in the form of racism. The more she traveled to European countries, the more she realized that the caste system still exist even in modern society. To her, this was a social evil just as bad as the political turmoil in her homeland.

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The victims of racism in this country did everything to fight racism in the best way they could, but those in power seemed unbothered by this issue. From her perspective, Salcedo says that social discrimination creates a rift between the victims and the perpetrators. What the perpetrators fail to realize is that anyone can fall victim to such rifts. It creates a society where no one is safe. Anyone can be trapped in the rift and the consequences can be dire. She says that we ignore these rifts and voids in our societies. Sometimes we even participate in their creation and maintenance of the status quo. Until one is subjected to the pain of being trapped in the rift, it may not be easy to determine the real impact. Being an artist, the only way she could speak out her mind was through her artwork. She wanted to warn people of the dangers of the existence of voids and rifts in society. Shibboleth provided her with the best opportunity to do this in a way that will make sense not only in the world of arts but also in reality.

The Site

According to Kelly (174), sculptors in modern society have become keen on presenting various societal issues in their pieces of art. Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo is one such piece of art. Just like a retailer will be keen to identify a site that is frequented by many to make good sales, an artist must choose his site in a way that will ensure that the intended message is passed to the audience in the most effective way. The choice of Tate Modern as the setting of her work was excellent. This is a gallery of modern art located in the city of London. The two groups targeted by Salcedo in her philosophical works frequented this site, but for varied reasons. The first target audience that regularly visited Tate Modern was the marginalized groups that felt the heat of being in a society where they were considered second-class citizens. Given their second-class status as citizens of this country, they did not have the opportunities other members of the community had. This meant that they were the poorest. They visited Tate Modern to admire the artworks, to pass time, and try to forget their misery. On the other hand, were the rich. These are the perpetrators of acts of racism. They are keen to ensure that the status quo is maintained at all costs. They believe that some people are more entitled to the wealth and opportunities of society than others. Langenbacher (128) also argues that Shibboleth was a site-specific work. This was a rare opportunity for Salcedo to present society in its truest form. A careful analysis of the events that take place at Tate Modern depicts the truth about our society. The two classes of people are very distinct, even in cases where they are forced to mingle. The rich and mighty will stand out from the rest of the other groups in their mannerism, dressing, and the way they have learned to ignore the presence of the ‘second class’ citizens. The two groups rarely mingle. It is like there is a sacred script that has been memorized by the two groups saying that everyone must understand his place and stick to it. However, in such forums, there is a striking factor that is also common in society. When children meet in such settings, they fail to understand the scripts from which the adults read when it comes to interaction and integration. It means that adults deliberately create the rift.

Salcedo’s Shibboleth
Figure 1: Salcedo’s Shibboleth

The Work and its Immediate Context

According to some of the recent studies, it is almost impossible for one to appreciate the relevance of Shibboleth in its immediate context in a literal form. At Tate Modern, people came to display their artistry skills by developing unique sculptures and other pieces of art pleasant to the eyes. When they come to such forums, they expect to see the advancement made by the artists and how creative they are getting in representing the society in which we live in their pieces of art. However, Shibboleth was presenting something absurd, ugly, and dangerous. It was absurd to create a 548-foot crack on the floor that has always been very beautiful in the past. It would be expected that such an artist would find ways of mending any crack on the floor in a way that creates beauty. However, Shibboleth was offering the complete opposite of this. What was even more absurd was the depth and width of the crack.

According to Bennett (340), at some points, the crack was large enough for a small child to go through. This posed a danger not only to children but also adults. In a place where their eyes would be glued on the walls and ceiling to admire the beauty of art, the visitors were constantly reminded by posters to mind their safety because of the gaping cracks on the floor. At first, the experience was more punitive than it generated pleasure. According to a report that was released by the authorities of this institution, over 14 people were injured, most of whom were children. This was a clear demonstration of the tension between the piece of art and its immediate context. However, Salcedo later noted that her work served its purpose in the best way possible. She noted that the outcome exceeded her expectations, including the accidents witnessed and the fact that most of the visitors swore never to visit the place as long as the cracks still existed.

Contribution of the Work to the Existing Debates about the Larger Cultural Context

According to Lauzon (18), Salcedo may have failed to meet the expectations of visitors who came to Tate Modern to see Shibboleth thinking that it was another beautiful sculpture. However, she made an immense impact on the existing debates about the issue of racial hatred and segregation in society. Salcedo said that Shibboleth was our modern society where the fabric is torn due to segregation. The problem is that members of society, especially those who are in power help to entrench this vice. They have not realized how ugly and dangerous this is to the well-being of everyone. This is what the piece of art sought to convey to society.

When they got into the hall, they were faced with a long ugly crack on the floor, with signs warning them to mind their safety. The floor with dangerous cracks in the fabric of our society that we have torn into pieces because of hate, corruption, and other social injustices. According to Ehrmantraut (82), when civil rights groups hold street protests denouncing social segregation, many may not understand their demands. This is so because they do not understand why a person would demand equal rights for two different groups that to them, have different entitlement to the wealth of the country. However, the seed of hatred they sow poses dangers to all members of society. This piece of art only sought to visualize the debate that has been going on in this society about the need to fight social segregation. Many people who visited this place, especially the rich who hate anything that is posing any danger to them, stated that the artwork should be given a serious reconsideration because it is a threat to society. To Salcedo, these people should turn around and relate this danger to the risk posed by the social injustices they perpetrate on the weak and marginalized people in the society

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Many people who visited Tate Modern to see Shibboleth stated that they were not planning to revisit the place. Even some artists noted that even though the piece of art was highly successful in bringing out the broken fabric in the society due to the social injustices, it was not a site to visit twice unless one was planning to make a serious meditation. For others who did not understand the message Salcedo was passing across, they went as far as blaming her for destroying a place they had loved to visit when looking for leisure.

To Salcedo, this was a big success. Society understood the dangers of having cracks and voids within the society. They were saying that the place was better and safer when the floor was intact. The message that this ugly crack reminded them was that by allowing cracks to exist within our societal fabric, we are subjecting every member of society to an ugly experience. According to López (88), the mind of a human being was constructed in a way that it receives gratification and comfort when one does something good to people around us. Hurting the weak or exploiting them may give short-term happiness. However, it leaves a gaping hole in one heart. A feeling of hopelessness and an unexplained melancholy sets in as the reality of the victims’ pain becomes clear in the mind of the perpetrator. This means that while the victims suffer because of the oppression, the people committing the social injustice also face the pain of dealing with the reality that others are suffering because of them.

According to the reports from the Health and Safety Executive, fifteen people were injured because of the cracks, and most of them were children. To Salcedo, this unfortunate experience was another area where her artwork received massive success. The cracks did not choose who to hurt. This is the debate that human rights activists and antiracism crusaders have been fronting. The rift we are creating through social injustices poses threats to all. When a White police officer shoots an unarmed Black man, this will be seen as an act of bravery by those in authority. What they are forgetting is that the marginalized are watching in pain the events that are going on in society. Their response can equally be ugly. Cases where Black men viciously attack White wealthy families on their way to the shopping malls have been reported in the United States.

When such events occur, the victims will in this case be the Whites who planted the seed of hatred. All are at risk, was part of the message that this art was passing across to its audience. It has been noted that children suffered the most during the visits. This again supports what many human rights groups have been saying. Children do not know any boundaries when they interact. Skin color, political affiliation, religious beliefs, and other social classification factors mean nothing to them. It is common to find children who do not share a common language playing when circumstances bring them together. Every child will use its language to communicate with the other. They even use signs to pass messages as long as it facilitates their game. However, we subject them to the heat of hate as we try to inform them of who to befriend and who to stay away from both at home and school. At this stage, they do not understand the relevance of such instructions, but because they are obliged to obey their parents, they are forced to follow such instructions though at great pains.

How the Work Position Itself in Relation to Other Works That Have Addressed the Same Site

When analyzing these pieces of art, sometimes it is necessary to compare them with other works that were intended to pass the same message or those that were on the same site. According to Lauzon (24), different people have different perceptions of how Shibboleth positioned itself concerning other works that have addressed the same setting. For instance, Embankment that was created in 2005 by Rachel Whiteread was one of the most popular pieces of artwork to be commissioned in the Turbine Hall. Below is a photo image of Whiteread’s Embankment

Whiteread’s Embankment
Figure 2: Whiteread’s Embankment

Shibboleth and Embankment are some of the two artworks that gained massive popularity among the artists using their talents to pass specific communications in the society. The embankment was trying to explain the puzzles of life, and how people struggle to ensure that they solve their puzzles in the way they know best. In terms of popularity among the general public, Embankment was more acceptable than Shibboleth. It required some logical thinking to understand how to address a given problem in diverse ways. However, Shibboleth stands out among the rest as a piece of art that was combative. Embankment avoided issues considered controversial hence it did not get serious criticism outside the community of the artists. However, the same cannot be said about Shibboleth. According to Ehrmantraut (81), Shibboleth directly attacked the society members who are still harboring racial sentiments towards other members of the society.

The artwork became very popular among human rights activists. In the past, they had not appreciated the importance of Tate Modern as a place that could help them a champion for equality in society. However, the works of Salcedo passed a clear message about the need for people to embrace social unity irrespective of demographical differences. For the first time, these activists had the opportunity to present to society the image of racism and social injustices. They were also able to show them how ugly and dangerous it was. Concerning other works that were produced on the same site, Shibboleth has been seen as one of the most creative works of art that have presented the issues affecting society.

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The Audience of the Work

Every artist is always keen on creating a work that will be appealing to the target audience. Shibboleth targeted various categories of people. Since the work was displayed in the city of London, it intended to reach local and international audiences. In London, racial discrimination has been an issue for a very long time. Society is slowly accepting that it is more beneficial to live as one society than to embrace practices that divide them along racial lines. However, one cannot say that racism has been eliminated. According to Lauzon (28), in cases where high school and college administrators are allowed to select the students to admit, they prefer having White students. The Blacks will be selected to avoid giving the impression that these administrators are not racists. Even in such cases, they must have very high qualifications. The same trend is witnessed when it comes to employment opportunities. The Whites are in a better position to get jobs than the Blacks. Although this favoritism is not as bad as it used to be some decades ago, the problem still exists. For this reason, the local community needs to understand the message Salcedo is passing to them. To the international community, this message is also very relevant.

The United States has demonstrated its resolve to fight racism by electing the first Black president in the country’s history. However, more needs to be done to ensure that minor cases of racial discrimination, especially by the police, are addressed. Countries like Russia have been accused of being intolerant to other racial groups. Currently, South Africa is struggling to fight xenophobia. The perception that all the social evils are brought about by foreigners or people of different races is misplaced. It is not something that we should witness in this century. This message is intended for those in power. They have a lot at their disposal in terms of tools that can be used to fight social injustices. Having a stable political environment such as that in Western democracies is not enough. Issues such as corruption, nepotism, and racism should be eliminated.

The Engagement of the Artist with a Site or Context

The engagement of Salcedo with the issue of racial discrimination and its dangers clearly shows that this issue is affecting the global society. A society that embraces any form of discrimination will always find a way of maintaining such discriminatory acts at every level of the social ladder. At the lowest level, they will view others to belong to a race that is inferior to theirs. When race ceases to be an issue, then the issue of the profession will arise. Engineers and doctors will feel superior to their peers specializing in social sciences. Then the issue goes on to the family level where one family will feel superior to other families. Racism is just an excuse. As demonstrated by Shibboleth, this is a global problem that should be addressed to minimize its effects on society.


Shibboleth is one of the greatest works of Doris Salcedo as she attempts to talk to the global society to stop segregation at all levels. Racism is just one aspect of social segregation. As demonstrated in this piece of work, racism is ugly, dangerous, and can have far-reaching consequences both to the perpetrators and victims.


Bennett, Jill. ‘Art, Affect, and the “Bad Death”: Strategies for Communicating the Sense Memory of Loss.’ Gender and Cultural Memory Special Issue, 28(2009), 333-351.

Cole, Lori. ‘At the Site of State Violence: Doris Salcedo’s and Julieta Hanono’s Memorial Aesthetics.’ Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, 15 (2011), 87-93.

Ehrmantraut, Paola. ‘Violence and the Latin American Imaginary: Preliminary Reflections.’ Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, 15 (2011), 79-85.

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Kelly, Michael. ‘The Salcedo Effect: A Hunger for Aesthetics.’ Journal of Art and Design 5 (2012), 129-174.

Langenbacher, Eric. ‘Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory by Andreas Huyssen.’ German Politics & Society, 21(2009), 127-130.

Lauzon, Claudette. ‘Reluctant Nomads: Biennial Culture and Its Discontents.’ Canadian Art Review, 36 (2011), 15-3.

López, Acosta. ‘Memory and Fragility: Art’s Resistance to Oblivion. The New Centennial Review, 14 (2014), 71-98.