“In the series ‘Seven questions with…’ Art UK speaks to some of the most exciting emerging and established artists working today.”
This interview with artist Barbara Walker—by writer, critic and art historian David Trigg (for Art UK)—was posted in April 2022. Walker was recently chosen as a finalist for the Turner Prize (see previous post, Turner Prize, Windrush Scandal among shortlist) and I found this conversation about her work quite compelling in the context of this recent recognition. Here, Trigg asks questions about her creative process and motivations in the framework of two of Walker’s 2022 exhibitions: ‘Barbara Walker: Vanishing Point‘ (Cristea Roberts Gallery) and ‘Broken Angel‘ (Coventry Cathedral). Here are excerpts; please see full interview and artwork at Art UK.
Working in a range of media, from embossed works on paper to painting and large-scale wall drawings, Barbara Walker seeks to counter racially skewed narratives and establish alternative readings of the past. Her distinctive figurative works, informed by the social and political realities that affect her and others in Black communities, explore issues of power, race, representation and belonging.
Grounding her practice in extensive periods of research, the Birmingham-based artist scours public archives and collections to identify overlooked histories. Her series ‘Shock and Awe’ (2015–ongoing), for instance, examines the contribution of Caribbean servicemen and women serving in the British Army from 1914 to the present day – people barely acknowledged in the public record, but who are monumentalised in her delicate graphite drawings and large-scale charcoal works.
Walker’s exhibition at Cristea Roberts Gallery, ‘Barbara Walker: Vanishing Point‘, interrogates the Black presence in Western art history, focussing on the way that institutions and the dominant culture perpetuate negative attitudes and perceptions. Reinterpreting works by Paolo Veronese, Daniel Vertangen, Pierre Mignard, and others, she uses a combination of drawing and blind embossing to highlight Black figures while obscuring the dominant white subjects. With these acts of erasure, Walker spotlights historical inequities and invites viewers to consider how history is made and how such strategies might reorient our understanding of Black identity.
David Trigg: How did the ‘Vanishing Point’ series get started?
Barbara Walker: One of my favourite places to see art is The National Gallery in London. By engaging with that space, I started noticing the front-of-house staff of colour and began having dialogues with them about what they identified with. One led me to Jan Gossaert‘s The Adoration of the Kings. That work is magnificent. You can see from the Black king’s physiognomy that he is painted from life, not from imagination.
In Renaissance Europe, there were lots of Black people who were generally either enslaved people, servants or both. With that in mind, I looked at the Old Masters to see how the Black subject is represented within the Western canon. [. . .]
David: What is the function of erasure in your work?
Barbara: I’m very interested in visibility and non-visibility in terms of marginalised communities. I use erasure as a metaphor for how the Black community is overlooked, ignored, and even dehumanised by society. [. . .]
David: I Was There IV (2019), from your ‘Shock and Awe’ series is a portrait of a young Black soldier made on tracing paper and laid over a photograph of a white soldier. How did this work come about?
Barbara: Both images are of British soldiers from the First World War; they were probably the same age, about 19 or 20. The images are from vintage postcards that I found on eBay. The overlay is again about erasure; I wanted to push the white figure to the background and bring the Black figure to the foreground. At school I learned that this was a white man’s war, but actually several thousand people from the Caribbean came and fought.
I researched the British West Indies Regiment in the Imperial War Museum. I wanted to unpack that story because it’s not generally known. These soldiers wanted to be equal and support the mother country. In the beginning, a lot of them were denied the right to fight and relegated to the labour force. With so many fatalities, Lord Kitchener eventually brought them in, and when they did fight, they fought valiantly! But those stories are never told. [. . .]
For full interview and artwork, see https://artuk.org/discover/stories/seven-questions-with-barbara-walker
[Image above is from Art UK—the Public Catalogue Foundation. “Self Portrait,” 2000 Barbara Walker (b.1964). The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery).]
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