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Issue 228

Barbara Walker Fills in the Blanks

At Cristea Roberts Gallery, London, the artist confronts the representation of Black figures in Western art history, erasing the white nobility

BY Lauren Dei in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 14 APR 22

Barbara Walker’s collection of 20 graphite and blind-embossed drawings marks the junction of privilege and poverty by spotlighting invisible Black servant classes scattered at the edges of classical Western paintings. Her reinterpretations of scenes by artists such as Paolo Veronese and Pierre Mignard centre on those peripheral characters who, in the original works, if described at all, are referred to as some variant of ‘negro servant’. Here, she has embossed the white figures to appear as faint outlines while the previously marginalized Black figures are emboldened in detailed graphite render.

‘Vanishing Point’ is the culmination of a five-year project exhibited for the first time at Cristea Roberts Gallery, London, alongside a single, signature, large-scale wall drawing. Informed by her experiences growing up in a Jamaican family in Birmingham, Walker’s practice connects historical and contemporary observations of race and class dynamics, recognizing both the past and current prejudices Black communities face. 

Mother hugging her daughter, who is holding red algae.
Barbara Walker, Vanishing Point 24 (Mignard), 2021, graphite on embossed Somerset Satin paper, 90 × 75 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

From a distance, the Black figures float as jigsaw-puzzle pieces in space. Horses, sunshades, cloaks and drapes are also visible in some drawings. The captions of the original paintings – housed in major public museums including The National Gallery, London, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna – often detail the decor of a room but never name the Black figure present within it. Institutions worldwide are currently undertaking an extensive rewriting of their captions as a decolonization effort to address these omissions.

Walker has portrayed each filled-in figure with attentive tenderness. This work casts the viewer in the role of investigator – peeking into the world of those forced to live their lives as property, deciphering their states of mind and coping mechanisms. Their facial expressions provide a meditation on this redistributed sense of priority. A young girl grimaces while being showcased as a marker of her mistress’s riches; a man looks head-on out of the picture while standing at the centre of a preoccupied family, whose household likely relies on his labour; others appear detached or smothered yet smiling. Every detailed drawing outlines the sparseness of its white shadows, apparitions whose scant, mask-like features hover eerily in the background. 

Noble lady resting her hand on a small woman.
Barbara Walker, Marking the Moment 3, 2022, graphite on paper overlaid with mylar, 40 × 35 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

The search for what’s missing is as much a part of the picture as the newly centred Black protagonists. By focusing attention on the Black characters, Walker also activates the void surrounding them. The backdrop is a testament to the distribution of power: the blanked-out area is larger than the visible elements, more reserved for the ruling classes than those outside. Vanishing Point 32 (Cuyp) (2022) reworks a painting from the circle Aelbert Cuyp, VOC Senior Merchant with his Wife and an Enslaved Servant (c.1650–55). Apart from the ‘enslaved servant’ and his parasol in graphite, the vista containing land, ships and skyline is obscured. Here, whiteness becomes a category that includes all the things considered worthy of being named and known. And our eyes are trained to seek it out.

Barbara Walker’s ‘Vanishing Point’ is at Cristea Roberts Gallery, London, until 23rd April 2022

Main image: Barbara Walker, ‘Vanishing Points’, 2022, installation detail. Courtesy: the artist and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

Lauren Dei is a writer based in London, UK.