Private Face

Paintings by Barbara Walker

Barbara Walker is an unfashionable artist. Unfashionable because in this age of instant imagery  - typified by the digital camera and the computer scanner - her work represents itself as the very antithesis of contemporary image making. Her work, exclusively painting, requires a considerable degree of skill, commitment and dedication, as well a considerable amount of patience and labour. Good paintings like these cannot be produced in a hurry. These painting speak to us of long and varied periods of engagement and gestation, before an image is committed to canvas and the physical work of ‘painting’ begins.

There is nothing particularly methodical in the way in which Walker works. An image may lie dormant in her mind for extended periods of a time before she commits a version of it to canvas. She sometimes has to work hard to win the trust and confidence of her subjects before she can begin to sketch or otherwise document these people and their everyday or regular activities. Doubts have to be overcome  -not just by those the artist wishes to sketch and paint  - but doubts of the artist herself and of those closest to her. For everyone involved, not least Walker herself, the right to paint familiar subject matter has to be earned. Having earned that right it has to be nurtured, protected and never abused.  

Walker does more than simply ‘paints’ her community, her family, her friends and herself.  She is in effect a chronicler, a faithful and friendly documenter of the lives and culture of African-Caribbean people around her in her native Birmingham. Her work is not merely social documentation, important though social documentation is, for it effortlessly exudes a warmth, familiarity and a humanity seldom within genuine reach of even the most accomplished and empathic photographer. Walker has grown up in, as well as grown out of, the ‘community’ that she takes for the subject matter of her work. Born into an African-Caribbean family in Birmingham, itself a solid home to many Britain‘s post-war Caribbean immigrants, Walker grew up in the Pentecostal church, one of many predominately or exclusively ‘Black’ churches that practice baptism by total immersion. She has also grown up with a familiarity with the reggae dance hall and many other social or religious environments in which African-Caribbean people congregate, worship and socialise.

… Walker does much good to undermine these corrosive and negative images. Through her paintings, she ensures that the ways which we see ourselves and the way in which others see us avoid what we might bluntly call the ‘racist’ stereotype. The people in Walker’s painting have real lives, real relationships and real needs. In other words, they are real people - people to whom we can, quite effortlessly, relate. They go to church, they have their hair cut, they play dominoes (of course they play dominoes!). Real people, real lives. Within her work, Walker is playing homage to, as well as building on, the work of other Black artists…

The above extracts are from an essay by Eddie Chambers for the catalogue [pp. 5 - 11] to accompany Barbara Walker: Private Face, mac, Cotton Gallery, Birmingham, 25 May - 7 July 2002