I'm interested in the power of drawing and how it sits within the contemporary practices.
It's very labour intense. I’m using my whole body, it's a quite highly charged activity that I'm involved in. It's also like a love affair, so it's poetic in that sense. In all the time that I create these drawings I know they’re temporary, so in a way I'm already saying goodbye when I begin the first mark.
When I'm working it's like the air I breathe, is like life itself and I'm happy when I'm working. I straddle my career between two fields, I work on paper, also canvas, but also I do these installations. The installation is ideally just another translation, extension, expansion from the 2D work. When I do an installation it very much offers a space to experiment, to test, to reflect and when I'm creating a wall drawing it's about presenting drawing, another understanding with drawing and kind of making a huge statement.
Visibility it’s quite symbolic, I’m immediately thinking about that physical space and what goes in my mind is, how do I interact? How does my work speak to an audience in that huge space? And sometimes these spaces can be very intimidating. Burden of Proof surfaced in 2018. It then emerged that high hundreds of Caribbean citizens, that particularly came from the Windrush generations were denied legal status, deported and basically categorised as illegal immigrants. I was quite angry, I was quite upset and I immediately thought of my mother and my father. Would they be subjected to this? And to think that these citizens contributed, was invited to Britain to help support the country after the Second World War and then to be categorised as illegal immigrants. It's heart-wrenching, it’s very callous, it's very sad. I need to make work about it, I need to respond to it.
I realised why these individuals were a bit apprehensive in coming forward a lot of them were tired, ground down, they’re either waiting for the results of an application or the shame. You know we are often told not to talk about our business or share our private business in public. That's another erasure, quietness, a quiet erasure happening behind the scenes.
Part of the process was the need to gather documents, that paper trail to prove their legal status. So imagine trying to find documents from a child, school reports, these mundane, forgotten ephemeral pieces of papers have now become the oppressive instruments to prove their legitimacy. So with that in mind I asked the participants that they give me two documents and that would be the backdrop. And then there's the overlapping of their portraits and the documents. They're quite provocative in many ways because they are telling a story. It also reveals these individuals have contributed to this country, they're not stats on a piece of paper, these are real people, these are real lives. But then also there's a tension within the documents, the overlapping of the figure on the drawing, it's deliberate because it's almost like the documents is now more important than these individuals. I will then translate that drawing to the wall as well. So they appear various in various forms in that space and that's how I'm curating that space and that's how I imagine that space would be.
So you can hear their voices through the work and also their expressions. I'm always thinking about the light and shade of a concept and also with this it's also looking at individuals who've been directly affected by the scandal. But also those connected to these participants the partners possibly the children, so there's a rippling effect in terms of generational rippling effect, it's still ongoing.
These are the pieces from Louder Than Words series and these are both drawings of Solomon, my son. These represent his dockets that he was given to by the police. Here the white signifies trying to erase the experience, the feeling. So I've always been erasing my work consciously or subconsciously I've been always erasing, it’s one of the key signatures to my practice I guess.
How do you represent and show erasure or exclusion within the art piece? I'm fascinated by the body, the figure, but also, in terms of the Black body or the Black aesthetics I wanted to break down the stereotype or erosive image that I found in the media. You’re never totally objective to the work, I'm always there, it’s my hand, also my DNA my imprint is on that work. But it's also, dare I say it's about me. The visibility of me making a statement. The message is taking usually the anonymous or the powerless of a subject, usually an individual or the Black subject. And I'm very much interested in the body politics, identity, belonging and power in terms of how power manifests itself in society and who owns the power. With that I subvert that narrative and take those who are excluded, bringing them into a space, bringing them to the surface, giving them back the power or giving them the permission or telling their stories.
What I do hope is that people can see, engage, read the work and from it somehow we can contribute to making something better.
In this film visual artist Barbara Walker MBE, RA shows us around her studio in Birmingham and talks about the themes present in her practice, including temporality, power and body politics.
We also see her creating a free-hand wall drawing in Towner Gallery as part of her series Burden of Proof. This sequence of large-scale portraits, which have been created in-situ across different spaces, capture individuals affected by the Windrush Scandal.
Barbara Walker is nominated for the 2023 Turner Prize, hosted by Towner Eastbourne. The winner will be announced on 5 December 2023.