A Q&A with… Barbara Walker

Issues of visibility and representation are at the heart of Barbara Walker’s practice. Her highly detailed figurative portraits range from very large temporary drawings made directly on the wall to much more intimate drawings on paper and paintings.

The political nature of her subjects is evident throughout work made over the past two decades. In earlier work these include young men subject to police ‘stop and search’ procedures, while more recently she has focused on the vital contributions made by Caribbean service personnel to historic British war efforts.

Based in Birmingham, Walker’s practice has been propelled to international attention through her participation in the Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Her largescale drawings of first world war Commonwealth servicemen and women titled Transcended, located in the stairwell of the Palazzo Pisani S. Marina, were some of the most memorable pieces in David A. Bailey’s landmark project.

Continuing discussions about the underrepresentation of black figures in Western history and in art history is ‘Vanishing Points’, a solo exhibition by Walker at Jerwood Gallery, Hastings.

The exhibition features a new group of works on paper made with graphite and embossing techniques that focus on black figures from a collection of Old Master paintings. They are shown alongside two such paintings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Luca Giordano loaned from the National Gallery that feature one black figure within the group.

Tell me how your exhibition ‘Vanishing Point’ was developed.
I proposed developing a new body of drawings exploring the visibility of black subjects in western European painting within a British national art collection. As demonstrated throughout my established bodies of work, I’m interested in the representation of black people in our public archives and collections. ‘Vanishing Point’ is an opportunity to explore this interest further, and to focus in particular on art history and the way it has been shaped by institutions and the art establishment in this country from the late Georgian period to the present day.

Erasure frequently features in your drawing practice as both process and subject. Can you tell me more about these in relation to your ‘Vanishing Point’ (all 2018) drawings?
The drawings I have created reflect upon key paintings held in public ownership. The premise was to revisit these paintings in detail, studying the compositions and redrawing them using mainly graphite alongside the embossing technique deployed in recent works such as Exotic Detail in the Margin (2017)included in the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2017. Through this process the black figure is foregrounded in high definition, while the visibility of the other components in the work is diminished – embossed to leave just a trace.

In past bodies of work such as Shock and Awe (2015-), the removal of detail (through erasing, tearing away, cutting out, blotting, whitewashing) has served to place emphasis upon what I see as a compelling absence of black representation in our national archives and, by extension, in the collective memory of British society. This matter remains central and pertinent to my work and research practice. The process here will effectively transfer visibility back to the black subject, and offer another perspective or interpretation on the work to contrast with the institutional position as acquirer and keeper.

Is there a particular significance in the materials and process you use to create these works?
I am interested in the hierarchy of materials and media in art. In this case, the valuing of painting over drawing. Embossing is often seen primarily as a craft and decorative expression. As a technique it seems as though it often comes after other printmaking systems in an invisible, unspoken hierarchy of value. The work considers the value of the medium in relation to the black subject.

My position is to revisit and reveal these artworks from the canon of art history to the viewer. When creating work, I want the audience to engage, learn and to think! When we are confronted with these issues in the paintings, what kind of experience are we observing? How might we think differently when confronted by the revisited paintings? Are our views challenged?

The exhibition includes The Banquet of Cleopatra (1740s) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and A Homage to Velázquez (c.1692-1700) by Luca Giordano, both on loan from the National Gallery. How did you select these and how have you selected the other older works that you have responded to here?
The two paintings were selected in partnership with the Evelyn Williams Trust, Jerwood Gallery and alongside an archivist/curator from the National Gallery, who was able to respond to my research questions and help to identify paintings from which I could work. The paintings as the primary resource, alongside collection records containing particular and peculiar information such as patronage and the rationale behind their commissioning or acquisition – these details add another layer of potential meaning beyond the surface of the painting itself.

Your work has gained increasing national and international attention in recent years, most significantly since your inclusion in the Diaspora Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. Can you tell me how being part of that project has impacted your practice?
The role of an artist can be a solitary pursuit! Participating in the pioneering Diaspora Pavilion provided the opportunity to crucially develop new skills, experiences, confidence and to dialogue with a range of other artists, through the process of mentoring, masterclasses and collective collaborations. This enabled me to reflect, take on new challenges and to ultimately understand my practice from a different standpoint. And finally, in the pavilion itself there was the transformational experience of doing a site-specific work, Transcended, on a stairwell wall.

Exhibiting at the Diaspora Pavilion was an amazing experience, not only because of the opportunity to create a new work that critically acknowledged the contribution of the forgotten Caribbean soldiers who fought in the first world war. It was also a pleasure to work with curator David A. Bailey after having appreciated his work for many years from a distance. In the context of the Venice Biennale, I have forged new connections that have resulted in the increased visibility of my work to a wider audience and narrative. For example, my work has recently been acquired by The Yale Center for British Artand the British Museum.

What will you be working on next?
I am currently working towards being in a group exhibition early next year at Alan Cristea Gallery. I will also be artist in residence at Turner Contemporary in 2019 and elsewhere will be undertaking a major commission to be announced shortly.

‘Vanishing Point’ is at Jerwood Gallery, Hastings until 6 January 2019.
Barbara Walker’s work is also currently on display at MEWO Kunsthalle, Memmingen, as part of group exhibition ‘Zeichen’until 3 February 2019 

Images:
1. Barbara Walker, pictured at the Diaspora Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2017. Courtesy: the artist. Photo credit: Alberto Collodel.
2. Barbara Walker, Vanishing Point (Liss), detail, graphite on embossed Somerset Satin 300gm paper using a Photopolymer Gravure plate 2018 61.50 x 79.5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Jerwood Gallery
3. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo,  The Banquet of Cleopatra, 1740s, © The National Gallery
4. Barbara Walker, Vanishing Point (Dolci), graphite on embossed Somerset Satin 300gm paper using a Photopolymer Gravure plate 2018 79.5 x 61.50cm. Courtesy: the artist and Jerwood Gallery
5. Barbara Walker, Vanishing Point (Solimena), graphite on embossed Somerset Satin paper using a Photopolymer Gravure plate, 2018, 79.5cm x 61.50cm. Courtesy: the artist and Jerwood Gallery
6. Luca Giordano, A Homage to Velázquez, about 1692-1700. © The National Gallery, London

Commissioned and published by a-n news, 27 November 2018.

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