Where are the black people in Old Master paintings?

These new works combine graphite drawing and blind embossing to reinterpret classical paintings. You see me placing the black figure at the centre of each work to offer an alternative depiction of the western artistic canon.

The works take inspiration from Old Master paintings in major museums, such as the National Gallery in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. They’re by painters from the Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age: Veronese, Liss, Mijtens. Their works are so beautiful with their rich narratives that you cannot help loving them. But within that beauty they’re quite problematic, in terms of the black figure.

As an artist, I’m particularly attracted to portraiture. Those who had their portraits painted were traditionally the wealthy: emperors, royalty, statesmen, landowners, rich merchants. And the flip side of this is that poorer people, people of colour, who were often slaves and servants, were either unimportant in those works or simply invisible.

I spend a lot of time in the National Gallery, and when I’m looking at those beautiful paintings, I’m looking for me — how we are represented, how we are viewed — and to understand our journey. Often the black figures are in the corner or with their backs turned to us. The viewer sometimes doesn’t see these individuals. But I’m making them high-definition and bringing them to the forefront: here, they are 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

For more than 20 years, I’ve been contextualising the black experience. Also I like the idea of working with the unknown, the isolated, the anonymous, and telling their stories. I’m interested in how certain groups have been erased from history and in 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 is reclaiming space.

I work in a traditional way and try to keep those aesthetics and principles alive. Drawing is practical, accessible and fast compared with painting, which takes a lot of unpacking. It can be a bit cumbersome! I’m arguing a point about drawing and celebrating it. It is not secondary to painting, as some might think. And that’s true of these individuals, too.

‘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, within printmaking, embossing hasn’t been fashionable for some years. It sits on the periphery, but I’m bringing it in as a language. Embossing is a type of drawing in itself — the ghostly imprint. Again, the subject and the material, they sit side by side in my work, they’re having a conversation.

I’m duplicating an Old Masters 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’ve done previously, or rub them away or paint them out. I want the audience to see the dynamics.

‘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 told to Griselda Murray Brown. Barbara Walker’s “Vanishing Point” is at Cristea Roberts Gallery, London, until April 23

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