In an academic review, artist Nilupa Yasmin examines Maxine Walker's exploration of black female identity through her photographic work and current exhibition Untitled at MAC.
Everyone has something to say about the way a woman should carry herself; the correct way to behave to what is considered an acceptable dress etiquette. Taking in accounts of intersectionality, these labels and associations have grown longer for women of colour, and more specifically black women. Maxine Walker has catered her practise in advocating for Black Arts Practises as well as opening dialogue around interrogating ideas of selfhood, womanhood and blackness.
An Autograph touring exhibition, Untitled is the first solo show by Maxine Walker in her home city at Mac Birmingham. On show, there are four of her series of works in which she is the prime subject. Her work spans ideals around and engages with black female identity, and the challenges faced within racial identity stereotypes (Mac, 2021). Each series presented compliments the wall space and layout of the Arena Gallery. Curators Renée Mussai and Bindi Vora have meticulously explored the space in relation to the work and presented each series as its own stage. Vitrines placed in the middle of the gallery hold ephemera on display ranging from annotated contact sheets to magazines Walker has co-founded and written for.
Allowing a moment of reflection between the 10 singular frames of Untitled 1997, to the purple painted walls centring Walker and complimenting the black and white cropped images. A colour associated to royalty, luxury and power the use of purple here not only spotlights the images but also highlights the sacred associations the colour has had throughout history. Often worn by Royals, the colour has been used to differentiate class and rank, derived its status from the rarity and cost of the dye used to produce it. The use of a colour with so many layers of ancient inclinations, makes way for Walker to take up space with these images, even with their cropped positioning, which warrants a lot to be questioned about the performance of stripping away her skin. What appears to be an act of defiance, moving out of the frame, these images are not humorous or mischievous but rather offer an outlook into the many layers of black beauty perceived by the eye of the other.
Skin is soft, delicate and gentle yet here we see Walker peeling away her skin to show you that she is still black underneath. Is this a second skin created to adhere to the society she resides in? Challenging the fabrication of a mould created upon her by society, this act provides conversation around pre-set expectations and whether Walker can ever reveal an unmasked self (Hall and Sealy, 2001). The images up-close offer a discomfort to the viewer as the act in itself is troubling to watch. One can question this process of peeling as a personal journey towards actualising what she recognises of herself and her black body in a white dominated world. Thus, a sense of vulnerability begins to appear in this act which examines the way the black identity has professed itself in these images and Walker’s wider work.
In Different 2001, Hall and Sealy expand on numerous black artists in Britain who are using their art to engage and comment on contemporary social issues in the world today. Walker is amongst one of the artists whose images and practise is mentioned in regard to the use of feminine beautification. The staged elements within her images open up thought around how truth is conveyed but also what they add to this narration of the black woman. This specific reading of the work shows Walker firstly as a woman and then an artist, feeding into the belief of how black women artists will always have these additional layers to their identity stripped by the art world. Rather than viewing the images as stripping away pre-set expectations, they are seen as finding one’s true self. As though a black woman needs society to show her how to find herself.
On exhibit are also her photo booth styled self-portraits portraits, Untitled 1995, that take on a myriad of characters whilst also disrupting the idea of an approved womanhood (Parker, 2019). Very different from her peeling away her skin but still performing for the camera, these images offer numerous outlooks of her character whilst also challenging the ideas of authenticity, glamours and stereotyping (O’Hagan, 2015). Transforming herself in each shot, a playful and mischievous persona is presented which questions the foundations of what is real and what is not. Beautification through makeup, clothing and posture is highlighted in these images as each presents a very different black woman to the one before. However, using the format of a photobooth, one that is used often primarily for the sake of identification demands an element of truth from the images which travels beyond Walker merely performing for the camera.
In a current world driven by selfie culture, the photobooth image is prevalent in working as a way of documenting but also preserving memories. Its self-processing and relatively quick qualities have proven it a hit amongst the current generations (Deepwell, 2021). Echoing on from the idea that in a photobooth it is the subject who makes the photograph, Walker presents this format as a way of highlighting her alternative subjects as the prime focal point. Furthering on from how selfies express an instant transformation through filters, these images are not fixed identities given to the individuals. Identity politics highlighted convey the physical appearance of the black woman, from the different varying skin tones and more specifically hair (V&A, 2015). Both looking at her in work and at leisure, these images present a persona that categorises these social stereotypes of what and who a black woman is, and to an extent what she should be.
Resonating further with these subjects Black Beauty 1991 shows Walker in only one out of the five photographs in this series. Depicting a performative personal space, the home becomes the stage in these images. In the only image that we see Walker herself is titled Cleansing 1991, which shows her sat at a table surrounded by products of femininity- a vanity mirror, toner and cotton wool. The other images in the set illustrate the objects on their own or set-in still life influenced compositions. Her role in these images play into the idea of how the woman is presented at home, taking on the many socio sexist roles that are not only inherently political but also feed into domestic servitude (Parker, 2019).
The home has longstanding associations to a narrative that it is an oppressive place. Bell Hooks expands on this view (Hooks, 1990) in line with how some feminist framework enable an opinion in which the role of the woman at home can be domineering. Often a conversation held heavily influenced by mainstream feminism, Hooks expands on how in black communities it is the very opposite. The home becomes a place of resistance renewal and most importantly a place in which black families can feel humanised and safe. A space that liberates and offers a safe outlet of solidarity; the home for the black woman is where she can feel humanised from a society that dehumanises her for the colour of her skin. In these images we see Walker with her hair wrapped in a white cloth preforming these rituals of womanhood for herself, whilst inviting us in to view these private moments.
One can also argue this in relation to the previously mentioned second skin created as a curtain between the self and its surroundings. Looking at herself in the vanity mirror, keeping it private as we are unable to view what she can see, everything else becomes secondary. A delicate yet powerful symbol of resistance in this act shows the effort and care taken into oneself, away from what is expected of you in your place of safety and healing. Limitations to Black womanhood are once again reduced to self-importance, for their choice to beautify is seen as conceited.
Walkers images, specifically her self-portraits, work as a testament to the platform black woman hold. Allowing us to gain a fragment of how the home can be a space of self-construction as well as a regeneration. She has allowed her lens and her body to be used as a tool to educate, observe and acclaim her blackness. The boundaries that are placed on race come through in her work as she actively uses the very things that are used to demean her, to transform and celebrate her.
Nilupa Yasmin's upcoming exhibition Tera-A Star will be on display at MAC from September 2021 - January 2022.
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