Vanishing point

OF JAMAICAN HERITAGE, the artist Barbara Walker was born and brought up in Birmingham where she lives today. During her childhood, she was taken to see museums and galleries. She noticed that in many works (paintings and other images) of western art, Black people play a peripheral role, depicted as servants and so on, serving the ‘white’ people who play a central role in a picture. Recently (April 2022), we visited an exhibition of her works at the Cristea Roberts Gallery in London’s Pall Mall. Called Vanishing Point, this superb display contains artworks, prints, which address the issue that Barbara noted when she was younger.

At first sight, most of the framed prints appear to be large sheets of white paper with a few beautifully drawn details depicting black people or parts of their bodies. Closer examination reveals that there is more to the white spaces than first meets the eye. The white areas are embossed. The black people, who have been drawn, are surrounded by the embossed areas of the print. Together, the drawings and embossed sections of the print can be seen to be a whole picture. Walker has processed an original image to create a new one in which only Black people in the original are easily visible and the rest of the picture forms a ghostly background. Unlike the pictures she saw when a youngster, the Black people in the picture are prominent and the others are barely detectable.

I am not sure exactly how the artist achieved this interesting effect and these powerful images, but I will have a go at explaining, using my experience of having once made etchings in the past. Metal plates are first coated with a photographic material. Then images of an original painting are projected on to it and processed in some way that produces a photographic reproduction on the plate. The artist, then blocks out selected areas on the plate with an acid-resistant material to produce a pattern that includes many details of the original image, including all of the parts of it that contain depictions of Black people or the parts of their bodies in the original painting or image. The plate is then immersed in acid, which eats into all the parts of it, which have not been painted over with the blocking agent. Then, a sheet of dampened paper is placed on the plate and the two are run through a printing press. The pressure exerted by the rollers of the press force the dampened paper into the depressions on the plate caused by the action of the acid. The result is a sheet of paper with embossed indentations. When the paper has dried, the artist then draws on the flat areas, which are in fact silhouettes of the Black people (or details of them) which appeared in the original painting. The rest of the embossed area, containing details and enough outlines of the original image to make it recognisable, is left white. The result is an image in which Black people become the focus of the viewer’s attention.

Barbara Walker’s works on show at Cristea Roberts (until the 23rd of April 2022) are ingenious and extremely engaging. She has employed an interesting technique to make her statement. Rather than reinforcing the fact that Black people were often depicted as being menial as is the case in the recent display of paintings by Hogarth at the Tate Britain, she has found a way of raising their status in artworks that sought to portray them as mere subsidiaries.

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