Contribution of Black Servicemen and Women highlighted in Barbara Walker exhibition

Sat 23 April 2016

The acclaimed artist Barbara Walker returns to mac birmingham this spring with a major new commission of monumental drawings. Opening on 23 April 2016,Shock and Awe acknowledges the absence of representation over the past 100 years of Black servicemen and women to the British Armed Forces and war efforts, from 1914 to the present day. Poignant and affecting, this remarkable collection of drawings reflects upon both historical and current events of warfare involving Britain and the colonised nations of the former British Empire.

Walker’s large scale conté portraits on paper portraying groups of Black soldiers are accompanied by equally large but transient drawings of servicewomen made directly onto mac’s gallery walls. While these works draw from archive material from the First and Second World Wars, a series of smaller drawings on to reproductions of old enlistment posters recognise and commemorate those serving or recently discharged from duty.

The contributions of the now defunct British West Indies Regiment and the King’s African Rifles, intermingle with those of present day soldiers, retired or recently enlisted. Two years in the making, Barbara Walker began her work through contacts with contemporary Black servicemen and women. Meeting them, developing conversations, photographing and then drawing them. All the while, each subject made her aware of their loyalty to the British Military – even after returning as civilians many years after service.

Walker’s research in national archives included regular visits to the Imperial War Museum, the National Army Museum and online archival services including the Jamaican Library. In addition, Walker acquired a growing collection of vintage portrait images from online sources - many of which arrived without any information about those pictured within them. Her personal collection of World War One recruitment posters have been deployed as a backdrop in her current work, depicting contemporary servicemen against the familiar rhetoric of ‘Your King & Country Need You’. This work explores the paradox between the past and present of Black soldiers; while the contribution of Black men in the armed services was and is still not plentiful, evidence of the roles that Black servicewomen played and continue to play is scarcer still.

Through the devices Walker uses in the work, such as erasing and obscuring parts of the image, the exhibition subtly references issues of race and censorship.

Walker talks about the conduct of Lord Kitchener, for example, who as Secretary of State for War in 1914 initially kept Black soldiers off the frontline and deployed them instead for menial tasks such as digging trenches and moving artillery shells. Fearing the consequences of empowering Black servicemen to engage and kill a white enemy, Kitchener eventually conceded – once the staggering losses became apparent - and Black soldiers were swiftly deployed to fight in combat from 1915.

Similarly, at the end of the Second World War, the Allied Nations led by Churchill, de Gaulle and Eisenhower all agreed that the Victory parades in Paris should not include Black soldiers to avoid the perceived threat of an uprising. This was despite the fact that the Loire Valley and much of the South of France were liberated by the Black African Regiments of the Free French Army.

Among Walker’s new colossal figurative drawings, a drawing entitled: The Big Secret depicts a soldier as an inverted silhouette – devoid of detail – emphasising their temporality and anonymity, their relative absence in the historical records. In other works, Walker inserts text from newspaper articles into the voids created by cutting out figures, bringing an underlying layer of information to the fore.

This continues the concerns of her series started in 2006, Louder than Words (shown at mac in 2007), which included life-size drawings of the back of her teenage son’s head, made on blown up copies of Stop and Search (Sus) documents he was given every time the police stopped and questioned him in the street. These drawings were selected for EASTinternational in 2009 by the artist group Art & Language, who recognised the power Walker’s text and image combination.
Shock and Awe shows the full power of Walker’s draughtsmanship in her large scale, black and white conté drawings.

Like many of The School of London artists of the post-war generation, she comes from another culture, or more accurately two cultures – Jamaica and Birmingham. From 1993 to 1996, she studied as a mature student at the University of Central England, where she worked with life models and earned a first class degree. In 2011, Walker was artist in residence at The Bag Factory in Johannesburg, followed by a residency at The New Art Gallery Walsall in 2013. She later showed with Tiwani Contemporary, London and Djanogly Gallery at Nottingham University. In 2015 her work was acquired for the Arts Council Collection and subsequently selected by the art critic Jennifer Higgie for the major touring exhibition, One Day, Something Happens.

Barbara Walker’s Shock and Awe is commissioned by mac birmingham and curated by Lynda Morris and Craig Ashley. It has been realised with support from the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, The John Feeney Charitable Trust and Arts Council England.

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Image credit: Barbara Walker, The Big Secret III (2015). Conte on paper. Courtesy the artist. Barbara Walker, The Big Secret I (2015). Conte on paper. Courtesy the artist.