Review of Barbara Walker’s ‘Shock and Awe’ at mac Birmingham

June 20, 2016 9:56 am. Published by

In the victory parades in Paris that crowned the end of the Second World War, the Allied Nations agreed that Black soldiers – those mainly from the colonial troops of West Africa – should not be permitted to attend. The leader of the Free French forces, Charles de Gaulle, made it clear that he wanted only white Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris.

This story exposes the unfixed nature of history, how it can be rendered or wiped away by the people who control it and write it.

Barbara Walker is deftly aware of this process, and points to it directly in her art. Her drawings of black service men and women – large monochrome Conté (chalk pencil) drawings – sit on paper or sometimes directly onto the gallery wall with a sort of fragile weightlessness, like complex aggregations of dust. The chalk is important since it exhibits a dry and delicate presence, apt to be smudged or damaged on contact.

The Big Secret (2015) Conté on paper

The Big Secret (2015) Conté on paper. Photo © Barbara Walker / Chris Keenan

Walker makes a specific point of this by sometimes erasing or omitting a figure from a picture, leaving an explicit blank hole, a blind-spot upon which we are invited to project the phenomenon of disappearance. Sometimes she destroys an entire drawing so that all that is left is a wall of smears, a cloudy brain mass, dripping and left to dry. Walker’s drawings are expert. Tonal values between light and shadow create not just realistic form but also express the conditions of climate: the air of the dusty barracks, the short shadows of a noon sun, the heat and tedium of manual work.

To then erase the work is a type of performance. It might be an uncomplicated shortcut to emphasise the condition of absence, but it also works to focus the viewer’s mind on the act of representation. Walker doesn’t omit every black face, rather she lets the blanks occur within a composition, as part of the representational flow, amid the faces and the landscape. As such, the blanks have the quality of becoming or emerging, almost as solid realisations, as two-dimensional voids. Thus, the she is able to point to quality of history that is so easily and often overlooked: that omissions in the historical records are not just invisible, they can also give structure to what remains.

Through these techniques, Walker has found a sophisticated and expressionistic means to explore the heritage of people she grew in with – Birmingham’s African-Caribbean community – with whom she shares a concern for the truth of their identity.


Barbara Walker
Shock and Awe
mac Birmingham, Birmingham
23 April – 3 July 2016
Curated by Lynda Morris and Craig Ashley

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This post was written by Christopher P Jones