The highlight of a recent trip to Turner Contemporary in Margate, Kent, was viewing the exhibition “Place, Space and Who” (18 May – 26 September 2021) by British figurative artist Barbara Walker during its final week on display.
This engaging portraiture exhibition featured a series of larger-than-life-sized images of five women and girls from Kent’s African diaspora communities, rendered in charcoal and drawn directly on the white surfaces of two gallery walls within the minimalist art space.
The size and scale of the portraits, grouped and positioned at different levels along the length of each wall, signified the artist’s intention to make these local women of colour highly visible and prominent within the gallery and also within the broader societal context of British cultural life. At each of these contrasting scales, the artist’s work provided a thought-provoking and compelling counter-response to the ways British women with African heritage have historically been – and continue to be – marginalised, overlooked and/or negatively othered; in art as well as in life.
In addition to the large charcoal portraits, smaller images of the five women were drawn in chalk on a set of black panels displayed against the first-floor walkway. The portraiture was accompanied by a 12-minute sound piece, created by artist Dan Scott, which included recordings of the sitters in conversation – exchanging candid reflections about life in Margate. The inter-generational discussions touched on respective experiences of relocation, settlement and socialisation. Their poignant perspectives on sense of place and belonging as minoritized women of colour living in a majority white coastal community brought into sharp focus the tensions and challenges of being perceived as an outsider in the place you consider home. Limited access to specialist haircare products for styling natural African hair textures, or the lack of availability of imported foodstuffs for cooking African and Caribbean cuisine within local outlets were just some of the issues that had to be negotiated as part of the place-making process.
In keeping with the artist’s oeuvre, the exhibition shone a light on ways that a long-standing African presence in the UK has been erased from mainstream historical narratives and artistic representations of the nation’s collective sense of cultural identity. However, rather than physically removing whiteness from centralised positions within traditional European portraiture in order to foreground those whose images have typically been marginalised or left out, Barbara Walker’s alternative approach in this instance involved the heightened use of detail within each fine art figuration. So, by recreating the facial expressions, hairstyles, hand gestures, body shapes and clothing choices of each sitter with intricacy, sensitivity and refinement, the photo-realism of each portrait encouraged viewers to spend time contemplating the works and perhaps also think more deeply about the lived realities, personalities and interior lives of the women in focus.
The scaling up and high positioning of each drawing served to elevate the sitters – physically and metaphorically – from the typically subalternised position falsely conferred upon women of colour as a direct consequence of entrenched racial, gendered and class-based inequalities in the UK, and the West more broadly.
Barbara Walker’s use of the phrase “reclaiming a space” was an apt description of her multi-layered approach to creating these striking portraits. Collectively, the drawings made a very powerful, site-specific visual statement about the need for more positive and nuanced representations of Black/Brown women, showcased via fine art and displayed in mainstream cultural spaces. However, they also contributed to broader, national art-political discourse concerning how to make visible narratives about the longevity and geographical distribution of African and Caribbean diaspora communities in the UK. More commissions of this type and scale are needed to accurately reflect the depth and diversity of a Black/Brown presence that has been settled on these isles for many centuries, is represented throughout a spectrum of different urban and rural localities, and forms an integral part of a multicultural populace place-making within inland areas and coastal environs alike.
To coincide with this exhibition at Turner Contemporary, a new illustrated book about Barbara Walker’s extensive portfolio of figurative works was published by the gallery – featuring essays by Paul Gilroy, Sarah Martin and Aïcha Mehrez, as well as an interview with the artist by Courtney J. Martin.
Further details about the exhibition and the publication are available online at the following sites:
Barbara Walker’s web space: https://www.barbarawalker.co.uk/
Place, Space and Who at Turner Contemporary: https://turnercontemporary.org/whats-on/barbara-walker-place-space-and-who/
Link to the sound installation for Place, Space and Who, available via YouTube (Duration: c. 12 minutes): https://youtu.be/YouSHXpDr2A