Barbara Walker: Rescuing black history from the margins

2 Mins read

Vanishing Point is the pinnacle of The Time Is Always Now, on show at The National Portrait Gallery.

Intricately drawn figures hug the edges of expansive white sheets of paper, compositionally side-lined in the series of works Vanishing Point.

From afar, the works seem incomplete; why are these figures drawn in such beautiful detail, but pushed to the side? On closer inspection, the sheets of paper are not blank but embossed as other figures and details appear from the layers of the paper as ghostly imprints.

Barbara Walker uses graphite and red pencil to draw the young girl in Vanishing Point 24 (Mingard) [Sadie Pitcher]

In one of the images, Vanishing Point 24 (Mingard), a young girl prominently occupies the bottom corner of the paper gripping coral in one hand and a shell full of pearls in the other as an offering. She gazes up to the washed-out figure with a forced stoic smile.

Barbara Walker’s graphite tenderly centres the girl’s identity and character, saving her from the edges of history. For the artist, the act of drawing becomes an act of saving.

The identity of the young girl holding the coral and shell remains unknown. She was likely the possession of the almost invisible central figure, Louise de Kéroualle, a mistress of Charles II.

Standing in front of this young girl, I was entranced by the delicacy and detail with which she had been brought to life with questions flooding my mind.

What’s her name? What’s her story? What can we learn from her? The young girl once a possession, unknown and disregarded becomes visible and given space to exist within history through Walker’s intricate practice.

The works in Vanishing Point are reinterpretations of canonical European masters by white men. In these paintings, Black figures are depicted as attendants, servants or enslaved people without names or stories. 

Through the series, Walker is re-writing this reality and establishing a new record that situates Black people at the centre; she is challenging who gets to be remembered and whose portrait deserves to be taken.

Walker, short-listed for the 2023 Turner Prize, creates figurative drawings and paintings that explore issues of class and power, gender, race, representation and belonging. Her practice is informed by archive research, looking at Western art history and the absence of Black representation.

The original painting is by Pierre Mignard and celebrates the beauty and status of Louise de Kéroualle, expressed through her whiteness and the placement of the girl and her gifts. During the 17th century, it was a common artistic tool to add a servant or slave to formal portraits to elevate the status of the sitter. In the painting, the girl is no more important than the objects she holds, a possession herself.

Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth with an unknown female attendant is part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection where the exhibition, The Time Is Always Now, is on show. The exhibition features eight works from Barbara Walker’s Vanishing Point series under the theme of the Persistence of History.

By including Vanishing Point 24 (Mingard) in the exhibition a direct conversation is established with the gallery urging the institution and visitors to look more critically at who is documented and remembered within portraiture.

Featured image by Sadie Pitcher.

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