Where are the black people in old master paintings?



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These new works combine graphite drawing and blind relief to reinterpret classical paintings. You see me placing the black figure in the center of each work to provide an alternative representation of the Western artistic canon.

The works are inspired by paintings by old masters in major museums, such as the National Gallery in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. They belong to painters from the Renaissance and the Golden Age: Veronese, Liss, Mijtens. Their works are so beautiful with their rich stories that you can’t help but love them. But within that beauty they are quite problematic, in terms of the black figure.

As an artist I am especially attracted to portraits. Those who had their portrait painted were traditionally the wealthy: emperors, royalty, statesmen, landowners, wealthy merchants. And the flip side of this is that poorer people, people of color, who were often slaves and servants, were either unimportant in those works or just invisible.

I spend a lot of time in the National Gallery, and when I look at those beautiful paintings, I look for me – how we are represented, how we are viewed – and to understand our journey. Often the black figures stand in the corner or with their backs to us. The viewer sometimes does not see these individuals. But I make them high-definition and bring them to the fore: here it’s not just props.

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

'Marking the Moment 1', 2021

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

For over 20 years I have been contextualizing the black experience. I also like the idea of ​​working with the unknown, the isolated, the anonymous and telling their stories. I am interested in how certain groups have been erased from history and how I might represent and emphasize 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 regains 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 cumbersome! I’m arguing for a point about drawing and celebrating it. It is not secondary to painting, as some may think. And the same goes for these people.

'Vanishing Point 24' (Mignard), 2021

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

'Vanishing Point 25' (Costanzi), 2021

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

Likewise, relief printing has been out of fashion within printmaking for several years now. It’s on the periphery, but I’m bringing it in as a language. Embossing is a kind of drawing in itself – the ghostly print. Again, the subject and the material, they sit side by side in my work, they have a conversation.

I am duplicating 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, as I did before, or rub them off or paint them out. I want the public to see the dynamics.

'Marking the Moment 3', 2021

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

'Vanishing Point 33' (Spranger), 2022

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

As told to Griselda Murray Brown. Barbara Walker’svanishing pointis at Cristea Roberts Gallery, London until April 23

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