Proposal for Threat-n-Youth: Cultural Studies Responds to Violence and Education Conference 2006 NYC.

Damage and Desire: Images From the Uncanny Space Between Childhood and Adulthood In the Work of Artists Laylah Ali and Shary Boyle.

From an adult perspective, the disturbing images that children often produce send up “red flags” as indicators of potential psychological abnormalities and the fear of possible prohibitive acts being carried out. Why is it that we wish to censor and negate the fantasy-space of children when it depicts violence and sex? In the face of the media’s ubiquitous depictions of violence and sex, and the realities of child abuse perpetrated by both adults and children, why do we want to deny that our children have the psychological capacity to produce such imagery? How do we address these threatening topics with our students?

The cartoon-like works of visual artists Laylah Ali and Shary Boyle depict narratives of fantastical child-figures involved in ambiguous acts that evoke issues of control, desire, fear, and shame. Looking at these works through the lense of the Freudian theory of the uncanny (unheimlich), issues of damage and desire in the conscious and unconscious minds’ of children are raised, leading to questions about the adult construction of childhood and its’ ramifications for educators in our postmodern age.

The disturbing terrain of alienation and difficulty shown in these artworks reveal the collapsing space between childhood and adulthood that, in reality, our children are increasingly expected to occupy and navigate. Being able to look back to childhood from the vantage point of being an adult allows artists Ali and Boyle to reveal and confront the emotional tension that issues such as bullying, identity formation, and sexuality create in children and the wounds they may leave behind. This movement is an indicator of how the boundary between adulthood and childhood is not fixed, either for the child or for the adult, and the appeal and success of their work speaks to this.

The desires of childhood lead to the damage of adulthood, and in thinking through these works in terms of the uncanny space between what is familiar and comforting to us and what may be fear-inducing and strange, the struggles that we as educators have in trying to help our students survive this transition psychologically and emotionally intact can be addressed.