My aunt would often remind me that ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ as she demonstrated for the third time the way she liked beds to be made, exactly how long to soak the hibiscus leaves and other lessons. In Jamaica Kincaid’s short story set in Antigua, ‘Girl’ (published in a 1978 issue of The New Yorker), an otherwise well-meaning mother splinters into a similar monologue: ‘on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don’t sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the street—flies will follow you.’
In her 1995 series, ‘Untitled’, British-Jamaican photographer Maxine Walker disrupts the idea of an approved womanhood through a photo booth style montage of self-portraits, presented as if taken within seconds of each other. Included in the ‘Self-Evident’ exhibition of Black photography at Birmingham’s IKON gallery that same year, the series is a confident projection of glamour and style, affirming the motley of Black women Walker knew. She appears mischievous and rousing with her long, fringed black wig, unzipped black jacket, black choker and gold dangling earrings. In another image, her skin tone is brightened to match her cropped platinum hair, purple lipstick and black halterneck. Meanwhile, in a separate still, she reverts to the ‘natural’ look of short black dreadlocks, wearing a dark blue knitted jacket and shaking her head with her eyes closed.
The home is a contested site for Black women. Gendered and inherently political, it plays host to a sexist social history that defines domestic servitude as a woman’s ‘natural’ role along with child-rearing and pageantry. In spite of this, the home also serves as a place of refuge, rest, regeneration and meditation. Walker’s self-shot series ‘Black Beauty’ (1991) captures this tension in a room stripped of colour and decoration. In Cleansing (1991), the artist sits at a table in her bedroom, where the tested and sanctified products of femininity – toner, eye gel, cotton wool, a vanity mirror – encircle her on doilies. With her hair wrapped in a white cloth and shoulders bare, Walker leans in to taste the rituals of womanhood, withdrawn but committed nonetheless.
Although Walker’s work is held in collections at the V&A and the Scottish Arts Council, this is her first solo show in 22 years. Ephemera from her career, spread over three glass display cases, bear witness to her investment and influence. Despite only being active between 1985 and 1997, the Handsworth-based artist was a force within the Black British Art movement, co-founding the Monocrone Women’s Photography Collective, Women + Photography, Polareyes and Autograph itself (then known as the Association of Black Photographers). She was also an art critic, actively winning the support of her peers, Ingrid Pollard, Joy Greogry and Adrian Piper. An archival issue of the December 1991 Autograph Newsletter opens to display an interview between Walker and Piper. Responding to a question about visibility, Piper speculates: ‘If I had stayed involved in the art world [in the] way that I was, my work would have been influenced by typical art world concerns instead of concerns having to do with my own identity as a Black woman.’
African-American author Alice Walker first articulates her pedagogy of womanism (an ideology arguably interchangeable with Black Feminism) in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden: Womanist Prose. She narrates her reverence for women, their talents and abilities beyond the boundaries of race and class; for the woman who ‘Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.’ Walker’s self-portraiture is a testament to this womanist praxis, an independent practice that affords some women the tools to appreciate themselves as themselves, if not for the pleasure then at least for the principle.
Main image: Maxine Walker, Untitled, 1997, black and white photographic print. Courtesy: the artist and Autograph, London
Rianna Jade Parker is a writer, critic and researcher based in London, UK. She is a founding member of interdisciplinary collective Thick/er Black Lines and is a contributing editor of frieze.