The Contemporary Art Society has recently acquired two works on paper by Barbara Walker and a painting by Joy Gerrard for the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Barbara Walker is a figurative artist who works with different media and formats, ranging from small embossed works on paper to paintings on canvas and large-scale charcoal wall drawings. Her monochrome images are often based on archive material, unearthing underrepresented histories.
The intimately scaled ink drawings I was there V and I was there IV are part of a body of work that addresses the largely untold stories of African and Caribbean servicemen and women’s contribution to the British Armed Forces. Both drawings depict Black soldiers on tracing paper laid over digitally printed anonymous photographic images of Black, Asian and White soldiers. For Walker, the fragile and sometimes ephemeral nature of the media she uses – chalk, embossing, tracing paper – is a vehicle for highlighting the erasure of Black histories. For example, her chalk drawings are washed away from the gallery walls, or, in a reversal of history, White figures are embossed and thus blanked out of reworkings of historic paintings with Black sitters. Inverting the anonymising act, Walker’s portraits reclaim an equal and independent position of the former ‘other’, establishing their own narratives as opposed to the ones put forward by the former colonial masters.
Joy Gerrard has been making images of mass protests since 2003, including anti-Iraq War demonstrations in London, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and more recently, the anti-Trump and anti-Brexit marches. Her arresting images are based on aerial perspective press images.
Gerrard employs the familiar image of protest crowds taken from above to show their massive scale against recognisable landmarks. Gerrard works with the canvas horizontal, reflecting the downward-looking perspective of her images, which shifts again once the painting is on the wall. She uses Japanese ink to create the dense blackness in her oeuvre and grinds the colour pigments herself. Gerrard’s large-scale canvases blur the individual figures into abstract marks. Equally, the buildings in Protest Crowd, London, (March against Brexit, 21 March, 2019) are nondescript. Only the banner, ‘PUT IT TO THE PEOPLE’ indicate what we’re looking at. The painting reflects the ambiguity – even polarisation – within the anti-Brexit movement, by depicting the movement of the crowd pulling in different directions. Brexit will have an enduring effect for generations, and it is one of the most divisive issues of our time. It is unclear whether the marches in Protest Crowd are contained by the streets or have claimed them.
In recent years Bristol Museum & Art Gallery has been developing its international contemporary art collection with a strong postcolonial perspective. To continue in this vein the museum is now looking at British-based art that presents a critical perspective on the world. Barbara Walker’s focus on visibility and representation continues the postcolonial critique of British history.