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Artist lifts lid on hidden war stories

STORIES: Barbara Walker

THE POIGNANT blank silhouette of a soldier toiling alongside his carefully drawn comrades speaks volumes about how the sacrifice made by black servicemen and women in the British Armed Forces has largely gone unrecognised over the past century.

Another drawing depicts a figure crudely scrubbed out – as if the artist has made a mistake and failed to rub it out properly – but for Barbara Walker, one of Britain’s leading figurative artists, this is no mistake.

In Shock and Awe, a major new commission of monumental drawings, Walker uses the full power of her draughtsmanship in large scale work to illustrate how black soldiers were there, but not recognised in warfare involving Britain and the colonised nations of the former British Empire.

By erasing the detail of these soldiers, Walker emphasises their anonymity in Britain’s history of war, while subtly addressing issues of race and segregation in the military.

Her research for this work included regular visits to national archives in the Imperial War Museum, the National Army Museum and online archived services including the Jamaican Library.


Walker also used her personal collection of World War One recruitment posters as a backdrop with the now familiar slogan: Your King & Country Need You.

Walker, who is based in Birmingham, told The Voice: “I am always looking at the world around me in popular culture and news to draw inspiration for my work, but I often find myself asking where is the black voice in all of this?

“It made me want to find out why we are often left out of the story, which led me down an historical path back to the First World War.

“You have to re-enact history in order to make sense of the future. I feel it’s important to resurrect and celebrate our roles in history, while not dictating. I am simply trying to replace the missing links.

“This project has been particularly important to me and the mac has been so supportive, along with curators Lynda Morris and Craig Ashley. They have all given me the space and time to create some of my work directly on to the exhibition walls, which took two and a half weeks.

ARTIST’S IMPRESSION: The Big Secret I by Barbara Walker

“I also wanted to illustrate the role of women in war; their part may have been small, but it’s so important that their contribution is recognised.”

When the exhibition closes on Sunday 3rd July, people will be invited to join her to remove the wall drawings, further exploring the notion of visibility, transience and erasure in her work.

Terence Wallen, who works closely with young people in Birmingham and was at the exhibition launch, said: “It takes an exhibition like this to make the point about the Black soldier’s journey in British warfare.

“They were there, but not there and I feel this issue transfers into the battles we face on an every day basis today. I will make sure as many young people as possible see this exhibition.

“Art is a fantastic way of informing the next generation – and it’s refreshing to see that it is being held outside of Black History Month.”

Claire Marshall, mac’s creative and partnerships director, told the launch: “In her work Barbara is lifting the lid on these hidden stories of black servicemen and women.

“Her work is both provocative and emotional, which in turn produced a strong reaction from our staff as they worked with Barbara to put the exhibition together.”

For further information and tickets visit:
Barbara Walker’s website:

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