Where are the blacks in old master paintings?

These new works combine graphite drawing and cold embossing to reinterpret classic paintings. You see me placing the black figure at the center of each work to offer an alternative representation of the Western artistic canon.

The works are inspired by Old Master paintings in major museums, such as the National Gallery in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. They are painters of the Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age: Veronese, Liss, Mijtens. Their works are so beautiful with their rich stories that one cannot help but love them. But within this beauty they are quite problematic, in terms of black figure.

As an artist, I am particularly drawn to portraiture. Those who had their portraits painted were traditionally the wealthy: emperors, royalty, statesmen, landowners, wealthy merchants. And the flip side is that the poorest people, people of color, who were often slaves and servants, were either unimportant in these jobs or just invisible.

I spend a lot of time in the National Gallery, and when I look at these beautiful paintings, I search me — how we are represented, how we are seen — and understand our journey. Often the black figures are in a corner or have their backs to us. The viewer sometimes does not see these individuals. But I put them in high definition and I put them forward: here, they are not just accessories.

‘Vanishing Point 26’ (Geertgen), 2021 © Courtesy Barbara Walker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

'Mark the Moment 1', 2021

‘Marking the Moment 1’, 2021 © Courtesy Barbara Walker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

For more than 20 years, I have contextualized the black experience. I also like the idea of ​​working with strangers, isolated, anonymous people and telling their stories. I’m interested in how certain groups have been erased from history and how I could represent and highlight them. What you see in these drawings is that the black figure is pushed forward and the other components of the composition are pushed back. The black figure reclaims the space.

I work in a traditional way and try to keep those aesthetics and principles alive. Drawing is convenient, accessible and quick compared to painting which requires a lot of unboxing. It can be a bit bulky! I discuss a point about drawing and its celebration. It’s not secondary to the painting, as some might think. And this is also true for these people.

'Vanishing Point 24' (Mignard), 2021

‘Vanishing Point 24’ (Mignard), 2021 © Courtesy Barbara Walker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

'Vanishing Point 25' (Costanzi), 2021

‘Vanishing Point 25’ (Costanzi), 2021 © Courtesy Barbara Walker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

Similarly, in engraving, embossing has not been fashionable for several years. It’s on the periphery, but I bring it as a language. Embossing is a type of drawing in itself – the ghostly imprint. Once again, the subject and the material, they are side by side in my work, they have a conversation.

I am reproducing an old masters painting and I want people to see the original in my work. The black figure is therefore always in situ; I do not completely wash out the white figures, as I have done before, nor erase or paint them. I want the audience to see the dynamic.

'Mark the Moment 3', 2021

‘Marking the Moment 3’, 2021 © Courtesy Barbara Walker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

'Vanishing Point 33' (Spranger), 2022

‘Vanishing Point 33’ (Spranger), 2022 © Courtesy Barbara Walker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London

As told to Griselda Murray Brown. “by Barbara Walker”Vanishing Point” is at the Cristea Roberts Gallery, London, until April 23