Art is frequently about the interrogation of self, the who? The why? The what might be or what might have been? For artist Natasha Kerr, it is a central driver of her work. Kerr who works with antique textile and photography, initially examined her own family background, however over the course of her career, she has investigated not only the lives and stories of clients, but also of fictional personalities of her own creation. “Telling a story is fundamental to my work,” she says, “but first I do a great deal of research.”
Kerr’s grandfather Otto came to Britain to escape the Nazis in 1936. A successful surgeon and specialist in women’s health, who trained under Freud, he was the son of a highly renowned Viennese tailor. As for so many political immigrants and asylum seekers today, his life’s trajectory and that of his family changed dramatically. This became a crucial focus for his Granddaughter, Natasha Kerr. At the centre of her ‘At the End of the Day,’ (used by the V&A as the lead image for their Quilt exhibition in 2010,) is a photo of her grandfather Otto, lying on a sheet in the garden, in front of an empty chair alongside his mother, whose face is covered by a handkerchief, all set in a multicoloured adapted Union Jack flag. It is according to Kerr a “displacement flag” an image perhaps of those left behind, those who are missing or about just not belonging anywhere.
This sense of dislocation or searching for the story of what makes sense of individual lives is the theme of much of her work, all of which is deeply considered, explored and researched. Her own family research culminated some 20 years ago, in ‘There Are Things You Don’t Need to Know,’ an extraordinary, haunting installation comprising a series of textile artworks and medical paraphernalia, enhanced by smell and sound, set in a decaying terrace house in South London. Kerr wanted to show her work not in a fractured way as just a series of anecdotes, but to make it understandable as a chronology of a family. “It is a proper story of migration, change and the cycle of life,” she explains. She wanted her family to be seen in a house, rather than a sterile white gallery, so she self-funded the show and in the process nearly bankrupted herself. Being textile-based, it failed to attract the attention of fine art critics, who only later came to re-evaluate the use of textile as a valid artistic medium.