Shadow Art

At some point in our childhood, most of us have taken a flashlight or a lamp and tried to make animal shapes on the wall with the shadows of our hands.  There was the dog that was also sometimes a rabbit depending on who was making it and how hard they were willing to fight the audience on the matter. Then there was the butterfly that didn’t really look like a butterfly, but since we only had two hands we just kind of had to do the best we could with the tools at our disposal. We may not have realized it at the time, but we were in fact creating our own pieces of abstract art with our silly little childhood game.

Chinese Shadow Art

A modern Chinese shadow puppet show.

Shadow Art is the art of creating images or relaying messages by utilizing the shadows cast by objects. These objects can be anything from junk—like trash, scrap metal, and cardboard—to living beings. The concept of using shadows to tell stories can be traced back much farther than just our childhood. Chinese shadow puppetry, for instance, is a tradition that has existed in China for thousands of years.

It is believed that the art of shadow puppetry can be traced back to the Han Dynasty. The favored origin story is that of the heartsick Emperor Han Wudi slipping into depression after the death of his favorite concubine. In one version of the story, one of the Emperor’s closest advisers began searching for a way to cure the Emperor’s melancholy, and was struck by sudden inspiration after watching the shadows of children playing with parasols in the courtyard. The adviser put on a special performance that night in the courtyard, where he brought life to a likeness of the concubine he had constructed by making its shadow dance. Another version claims the Emperor summoned the officers of his court, demanding they bring his concubine back to life. They fashioned her from donkey leather and used oil lamps to give movement to her shadow, giving the illusion of life. Shadow puppetry spread among the everyday people. It became a regular occurrence at parties and gatherings, passing down oral histories and relaying religious messages.

Artists today use shadow art primarily as a way to show how things are not always like they appear. The act of arranging garbage and other seemingly menial objects in such a way that their shadows form something great helps to reinforce the idea that art can be found anywhere. Art isn’t just something that is high-class and beautiful on the surface. As long as it impacts the audience—as long as it interrupts our routine and makes us stop and think—then it doesn’t matter what it may look like at face value.

Here are a few of my favorite shadow art pieces from around the web (clicking on the images will open the artists’ websites):

Shadow Art2

Artists: Tim Noble and Sue Webster

Shadow Art3

Artist: Fabrizio Corneli


Artist: Kumi Yamashita

Shadow Art5

Artist: Fred Eerdekens



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About the Author

Tierra Holmes is a senior studying Art History and History at UNCC. When she isn’t chained to her computer working on research projects, she enjoys marathoning Korean dramas and spending money she doesn’t have. After graduation, she hopes to curate a museum or gallery and possibly guest-star on Mysteries at the Museum.