This month Sophie Ridsdale-Smith looks at the work of Barbara Walker, whose work features in Unquiet Moments: Capturing the Everyday, an online exhibition realised by The Courtauld Institute of Art’s 2020 MA Curating the Art Museum programme.
Social documentary has always been of great interest to Barbara Walker, whose work captures moments in communities or families that would often go unnoticed. She has described her large-scale paintings as ‘snapshots in time’, captured through the language of painting.
Walker's two paintings Boundary I and Boundary II are part of a body of work called Private Face. Consisting of 34 works of art, Private Face presents the artist’s own observation and experience of the black community in Birmingham. Walker makes it clear that her work aims to challenge the negative stereotypes and misunderstandings that surround the African-Caribbean community in mainstream media. She does so by entering and documenting scenes that may seem mundane and ‘pedestrian’ in order to expose the beauty and that resides there.
Boundary I and Boundary II resulted from Walker’s time spent in barber shops across Handsworth, photographing and documenting the people that she saw. Before painting, she built trust between herself and her subjects, aware of her ‘outsider’ status as a woman entering a male space. Choosing two photographs from 40 or so she captured, Walker translated these intimate moments onto large canvases. The scale of these works is significant as they are intended to dominate the gallery space, prioritising the visibility of these everyday narratives.
Despite dealing with similar subject matters, Boundary I and Boundary II are very different in their approach to colour. Boundary I has a limited colour palette creating a sense of calm and mutual respect between the two figures. The use of sepia tones in Boundary II, on the other hand, is reminiscent of old photographs. In doing so, Walker wanted to communicate the long history of barber shops in Handsworth and to evoke memory.
Sophie Ridsdale-Smith is one of the nine curators of Unquiet Moments: Capturing the Everyday, an online exhibition from the MA Curating the Art Museum students at the Courtauld Institute of Art.