Reprising the Black figure in European art history is no easy feat and has been attempted by many. But over the past five years and more, the Birmingham-based artist Barbara Walker has been consistent in her efforts to realise authentic reinterpretations of Black women, men and children in the classical European imagination.
Vanishing Point at Cristea Roberts Gallery in London is a substantive presentation of 20 new works traditionally hung in the L-shaped room. A sharp right-hand turn reveals a scene of fictitious Black dignitaries lavishly dressed, washing the largest white wall in the gallery. Elsewhere drawings in graphite paper include the refiguration of well-known classical painters including Johann Liss, Daniel Vertangen and Paolo Veronese.
Typically, the Black people who featured in countless international collections of art – made up of historical paintings, wood engravings, etching and prints – are relegated to footnotes by art historians, if acknowledged at all. But if the viewer reads these images with intuitive interrogation, they will quickly note the Black figures who mostly travelled from colonies as cheap chattel to be bequeathed to notable people as gifts and decorative objects. They were often made to posture alongside their captors in paintings the captors themselves commissioned, their presence serving as examples of European excess, as shown in Walker’s drawing Vanishing Point 24 (Mignard). Black women were central tropes in the orientalist view of the celebrated old master painters, nominated as attendants to fairer women of fine taste and wealth, in domestic settings, harems, bath houses and trading markets.
In Marking the Moment 3, the image of a decadent white woman drawn on graphite paper is overlaid with mylar, but a small circular cutout reveals a seemingly aloof child with a tightly coiled afro peering up towards the woman, who is cupping his shoulder in a way one would a domestic pet. Vanishing Point 22 (Mijtens), sees a white woman embossed on Somerset Satin paper with only a faint outline remaining and so immediately the Black male servant, delicately placing a bracelet around the now invisible figure, is pushed to the forefront as a subject and not just an objective index of wealth for gentry and their kin.
Walker, who is undertaking a residency at the British School at Rome this spring, describes her piqued interest in figuration as always being “drawn to the figure, not necessarily, or not only, its portraiture aspects but more so body politics”. Her own creative practice was shaped by art school that “provided me with the important opportunities to think about how as an artist I had the power to push back, and to create images other than the nasty corrosive caricatures of Black people frequently peddled by the mainstream media and dominant culture”. Walker’s artistic-archival investigations at the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery and Rijksmuseum emphasises the value of evidence of the Black presence that stimulates lines of questioning for corrective art history and provides a source of inspiration to undertake the thankless work of engaging with historical records, one that ultimately and positively concludes in a new collective public knowledge.