Where are the blacks in the paintings of the old masters?

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These new works combine graphite drawing and blind embossing to reinterpret classic paintings. You see how I place the black figure at the center of each work to offer an alternative representation of the western artistic canon.

The works are inspired by Old Master paintings in major museums such as the National Gallery in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. They come from painters from the Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age: Veronese, Liss, Mijtens. Her works are so beautiful with their rich narratives that one cannot help but love them. But within this beauty they are quite problematic in relation to the black figure.

As an artist, I am particularly drawn to portraiture. Those who allowed themselves to be portrayed were traditionally the rich: emperors, kings, statesmen, landowners, wealthy merchants. And the flip side of this is that poorer people, people of colour, who were often slaves and servants, either played no role in these works or were simply invisible.

I spend a lot of time at the National Gallery, and looking at these beautiful paintings makes me search me – how we are portrayed, how we are seen – and to understand our journey. The black figures often stand in the corner or with their backs to us. The viewer sometimes does not see these people. But I make them high definition and bring them to the fore: here they’re not just props.

Vanishing Point 26 (Geertgen), 2021 © Courtesy Barbara Walker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

Marking the Moment 1, 2021 © Courtesy Barbara Walker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

I have been contextualizing the black experience for more than 20 years. I also like the idea of ​​working with strangers, isolated, anonymous and telling their stories. I’m interested in how certain groups were erased from history and how I might represent and highlight them. What you see in these drawings is that the black figure is brought forward and the other components within the composition are pushed back. The black figure reclaims the space.

I work in a traditional way and try to keep those aesthetics and principles alive. Drawing is practical, accessible and fast compared to painting, which requires a lot of unpacking. It can be a bit awkward! I make a point about drawing and celebrating. It is not secondary to painting, as some might think. And the same goes for these people.

‘Vanishing Point 24’ (Mignard), 2021 © Courtesy Barbara Walker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

‘Vanishing Point 25’ (Costanzi), 2021 © Courtesy Barbara Walker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

Similarly, embossing has been out of fashion in printmaking for a number of years. It sits on the periphery, but I bring it in as a language. Embossing is a kind of drawing in itself – the ghostly imprint. Here, too, the topic and the material sit side by side in my work, they lead a conversation.

I am reproducing an old master painting and I want people to see the original in my work. So the black figure is still in situ; I don’t completely wash away the white figures like I used to do, or rub them off or color them in. I want the audience to see the dynamic.

'Marking the Moment 3', 2021

Marking the Moment 3, 2021 © Courtesy Barbara Walker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

“Vanishing Point 33” (Spranger), 2022 © Courtesy Barbara Walker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

As Griselda Murray Brown said. Barbara Walker’svanishing pointis on view at the Cristea Roberts Gallery, London, until April 23

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