Sunday, 23 February 2020

Review: Carmen Fracchia ‘Black but Human’: Slavery and Visual Art in Hapsburg Spain 1480-1700



There is so much in Dr Carmen Fracchia ‘Black but Human’: Slavery and Visual Art in Hapsburg Spain 1480-1700 . I have struggled to write this review. Where do I begin? How can I end ? Almost every page has some new, revealing insights into what for me has been a paradox in my studies of the black presence in Renaissance art.

Most, if not all, the black figures in Renaissance art are the enslaved or the children of the enslaved purchased at Spanish markets. Fracchia tells us that the Iberian Peninsula had a black enslaved population of around 2 million over the period covered by the book, they were 10 to 15 percent of the population of Seville, Valencia, Lisbon and  other cities, yet there are so few to be found in art from the region during this time. Why?

The paradox becomes even more intriguing when considering the literary black presence as oppose to the visual, when comparing Spanish texts from the period to those found in the rest of Western Europe. There is the very limited visual presence in Spanish art which is in a puzziling contrast to the many written expressions of that presence in its literature. Making me double down on the question: why so few black images in Spanish art?

Fracchia builds on the scholarship found in the multi volume seminal work edited by Bindman and Gates Image of the Black in Western Art , which I have discussed elsewhere in this Blog when the 2nd edition was launched at the British Museum and when a further four volumes were added, today there are ten volumes. Fracchia explains in religious and social terms what the black image meant to Spanish culture at the time. Unlike, on the whole, the analysis found in Image of the Black in Western Art,  Fracchia takes not just the view of the Spanish elites found in the Church or in the Court but also the voices and the views of the black enslaved Afro-Hispanics in their desire to be considered human.

Fracchia develops the ideas hinted at in the works title Black but Human giving the enslaved a humanity, a dignity which she discusses throughout her book, demonstrating how many works are ‘[important] relays of power and resistance’. She opens with an analysis of literature which goes further than Victor Stoicha’s chapter in Image of the Black in Western Art - Image of the Black in Spanish Art: Sixteenth and Seventennth Century, Fracchia talks about the process of ‘appropriation and adaptation’ of black carols – poems of ‘devotion and entertainment’ sung in hablar negresco – by white imitators who intentions were to mock the blacks, in contrast to the ‘real’ Afro Hispanic writers whose central theme was we are Black but Human, despite being enslaved they wanted their common humanity acknowledged. 

Fracchia describes how the Church considered the main function of images was to instruct the believer, in doing so they must support religious teaching. Thus ‘Catholic visual form was to be intensely scrutinized and monitored from conception to consumption’ however such actions by the Church do not fully explain the absence of black figures as the Church. As perhaps a counter Reformation measure the Church actually created black saints to attract black people to Christianity. She argues that there are perhaps two cases in which this absence is understood.

Anonymous artist (Detail) St Benedict of Palermo
Firstly, the Black Magus in the Adoration scene a common image in the rest Europe, discussed elsewhere on this blog, took a long time to be accepted into Hispanic Adoration iconography due to almost eight centuries of domination by the ‘Moors’, there was a resistance to the apparent Muslim presence and when they did accept the Black Magus presence it was the most exotic version to underline his otherness ‘ a visual distance from the daily reality of [Afro-Hispanics]’. Secondly, in the case of royal portraiture the absence of black people was the very nature of the Hapsburg Court which excluded people considered not worthy from portraiture, there were ‘no depictions of slaves as elegant servants unlike regal images throughout Western Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth century’, additionally there was the fear of Muslim contamination.

Juan Bautista Maíno (1612/14) Adoration of the Magi (Detail)
Having explained the paradox of the numbers of Afro-Hispanics and their literary legacy compared with their essential absence from visual representation from the period. She goes further to discuss the visual manifestations of the physical violence of Hispanic slavery showing how the Black but Human topos encodes the painful ambivalent and ultimately inhuman experience suffered by the enslaved and the ex-enslaved in Imperial Spain.
 
Isidro de Villoldo (1547)The Miracle of the Black Leg
To make manifest the physical violence of Spanish slavery from the period Fracchia skilfully deconstructs depictions of The Miracle of the Black Leg by Spanish and Italian artists. She shows the brutality, the ‘gratuitous cruelty’ of the former interpretations, as the image is used ‘to signify the exploitation and violent appropriation of the African body by the mighty imperial power of Spain’. On a personal note this was a revelation to me as I was more familiar with the comparatively benign Italian version of The Miracle, where the leg is taken from a recently deceased black body and remains black, unlike in Spain where the African is still very much alive as his leg is cut off and the miracle is extended to not just replacing the diseased leg of the white clergy with a working , functional leg but also the leg – in the Spanish- version becomes white!

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1650) Juan de Pareja (1606–1670) 
For me the climax of Fracchia's scrupulously researched and argued work is her detailed analysis of two complementary paintings -  Velázquez's ‘exceptional’ c1650 portrait of his enslaved assistant Juan de Pareja and Juan de Pareja’s ‘extraordinary’ 1661 The Calling of St Matthew. Fracchia shows how Velázquez endows Pareja with his own ‘humanity’ making him the equal of any viewer - white or black. While in The Calling of St Matthew Pareja builds on his own humanity, borrowing ideas from his master’s Las Meninas to show his ‘worth and nobility’, representing ‘the process of liberation from slavery (Velázquez manumitted him the same year he painted Pareja's portrait) by choosing to Europeanize his features as a visible sign of religious, cultural and social assimilation.’  Both artists – master and servant – make the same point in their own way, Pareja is black but he is human.

Juan de Pareja (1661) The Calling of St Matthew
My only gripe – which I consider quite minor - is that I wanted to read more about Sebastián Gómez  the black enslaved assistant to Bartolomé Estaban Murillio, who was, some 30 years younger than Pareja. Murillo manumitted him, and he went on to be an artist in his own right. I was left wanting to know more about Gómez and make the inevitable comparisons with Velázquez’s Pareja. However, all is not lost! This book demands an exhibition to bring together all the works discussed, and ‘Black but Human’: Slavery and Visual Art in Hapsburg Spain 1480-1700 is the exhibition’s title and catalogue. It would be the  chance to celebrate the works of Juan de Pareja  and Sebastián Gómez – I believe to be the first known European black artists - along with the many other works discussed in the book. I look forward to attending and writing my review!

Juan de Pareja, Detail: Self-portrait of Juan de Pareja, The Calling of St Matthew
I'll conclude by making two points. First, Fracchia resolves my paradox by describing how and why the black image was excluded from the Adoration and royal portraiture, as slaves black people  were not considered worthy of representation and there was association with the ‘Moors’ and Islam so no blacks appeared in paintings from the period. Secondly. Fracchia gives the voice and the views of the enslaved unlike any book on art from the period I have read, specifically she builds on the conventional academic scholarship of Victor Stoicha’s chapter in Image of the Black in Western Art, she gives expression and humanity to the black enslaved, as well as consistently recognising slavery as a crime against humanity – sympathetically considering the enslaved and ex-enslaved Afro-Hispanics Black but Human. I whole heartedly recommended this book, unreservedly.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Review: A Book of Secrets by Kate Morrison



My introduction to Kate Morrison was her paper 'Go back & fetch what you forgot': building a fictional character from the archives presented at What’s Happening in Black British History V Workshop in October 2016 which included her announcing she had a book deal that was A Book of Secrets, all while cradling her sleeping baby!

Kate Morrison presenting on building a fictional character from the archives
The approach she discussed at that workshop produced this work of fiction based on the lives of black Africans who lived in Tudor England working in domestic services and as craftsmen and women. Morrison’s fiction contrasts with the facts in Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors: The Untold Story and Onykea Nubia's Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins who both describe the African presence from their researches in the archives. Morrison, with equal academic rigour to researching the archives takes the facts from her diligent scholarship and through her masterful storytelling skills brings the black African Tudor presence to life making it real, making it human, giving it flesh and blood with emotions and desires.

Her book is not just the story of the life and times of Suky/Susan Charlewood/Nsowah a black woman and her struggle for survival in Elizabethan England, it is much richer, deeper and wider telling stories of class, religion, death, love and sex set against the spiritual and secular suspicions and fears of the day, telling the story of a black woman making her way seeking to understand her heritage and find her true identity in a world of national and international, brutal religious strife and military intrigue. Morrisons skilfully examines and reveals the political and religious climate of the time, as England wanted its own sovereignty not that of the Pope, not unlike the demands of the Leavers in Britain’s BREXIT debate.

Morrison’s work demonstrates the importance of researching black British history not just as an academic exercise but to bring that research to light, making it accessible to a wider, non- academic audience and despite the duties of motherhood she brought her story to life for the WHBBH audience and now to a much wider one. Here we have her critical interrogation of the archives coupled with her innovative imagination creating a wholly plausible, readable work of fiction based on fact - a page turner - I loved it - look forward to the film.  #FullyRecommended

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Review: The Isle of Wight's Missing Chapter by James Rayner

The Isle of Wight’s Missing Chapter by James Rayner is a fascinating book with brief sketches of the many men and women of diverse ethnicities who have visited or stayed on the Island since the 18th century. It challenges that version of the Island’s history, which to date has been pretty much exclusively white and British. Rayner, through his targeted research of; local history books, newspapers, biographies and official records,  is able to fill in what he calls ‘this missing chapter from the Island’s past’.

From my own personal black British history interests, I was intrigued to find the black Tudor Jaques Francis lived on the island, as did Fanny Eaton  the muse to Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who Rossetti painted her in ‘Beloved’ and also that the abolitionist Oldudah Equiano spent six months there.

I found the book very readable. Essentially this is a listing, but Rayner creates a very readable narrative, his writing style connects the diverse lives in a very clear, orderly manner, making the book very accessible.

I recommend this thought-provoking book particularly as it is a model for anyone in Britain’s other 182 islands that make up these British Islands to create their Missing Chapter in doing so show that history is never a closed book.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Reparation Debate at University of London

UCL Debating Society
Should Britain pay Reparations to its Former Colonies?
30th September 2019


The invitation to speak at University of London’s debating society came out of the blue just like the Durham invitation. I accepted without hesitation as it was chance to apply the things, I had learnt from losing the same debate in Durham.



Lecture theatre 4.04 LT2 in the Cruciform Building was packed, not sure if that was because that this was the first debate of the academic year or whether it was the subject but the room was rammed with people sitting on the stairs and on the floor in front of the stage. 



The day before I had prepared a 15 minute speech, only to receive an email over the weekend reminding me I had 7 minutes (Note to self -  remind yourself of the rules of debate !) I had a job cutting it back to 7mins so I left it a 10 minutes. On the night I negotiated with the Chairman and the other speakers the additional 3 minutes.

There were points of order aka statements challenging what the speaker was saying while the speaker was at the lectern, the speaker could take the point of order or ignore it. I took mine while others declined, adding to tension as speakers spoke on ignoring attempts at intervention.

At the end of the four speeches members of the audience came up to the lectern to a make 3-minute statement FOR or AGAINST the motion and in one case both (as they could see both sides and wanted to make a case for each!).

Proposition (FOR):
Michael Ohajuru Cultural Historian, and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies 
Callum Nimmo President of the UCL Debating  Society (stood in at the last minute as scheduled speaker did not show up)

Opposition (AGAINST):
Dr Kim Wagner Senior Lecturer in British Imperial History at QMUL
Spencer Shia President of the UCL Conservative Society and fellow debater

FOR
I developed the Malcom X argument in which he compares slavery to a knife in the back, you don’t absolve yourself by simply pulling the knife out – abolishing slavery – you need to heal the would left by slavery – pay Reparations. Then went onto consider Hillary Beckles idea of Reparation as a conversation between equals to resolve the neglect and underdevelopment. Emphasised aid is not the answer as this is tied to the West as for every 1$ the West gives in aid it receives 24$ back. Callum spoke of the need to correct a wrong. The owners were given compensation for their loss of property – the enslaved - while the enslaved received nothing. Art had been stolen and needed to be returned as part of the Reparation 

AGAINST
There is no need for Reparation as slavery happened some time ago. Paying it would only be political ritual – a show on moral grounds - in fact it would be tokenism. There is no need for Reparation its only blood money to make Britain feel better- a gesture to show British exceptionalism and its greatness – you cannot repair the past. Further most of the colonies have corrupt governments so the money would be wasted. We are not responsible today for what has gone before.

And why give back the art as it reaches a wider audience here in Britain? If Britain did give it back the art would be mis used by the Governments to reinforce origin and nation creation myths which might favour one group over another causing division. Further the people who live in the land today do not own art that was created by those who previously lived on that land.

Conclusion 
From Durham I was ready for all these arguments apart from the art which did not occur in Durham.

Moral argument – the owners were compensated why not the slaves 
Not my problem/responsibility – many of the institutions you benefit from today were founded with profits for slavery eg National Gallery, Lloyds Insurance 
Corrupt Governments – the conversation cannot just be at Government level look at Glasgow and Cambridge Universities Reparation activity.
Art better here – these are cultural, religious artefacts not art,  it was looted, stolen and should given back to where it came from.

I was the last to speak, closed quoting Obama – vote for your hopes not your fears  - attempting to counter the negativity and concerns in Opposition’s arguments 

Outcome 
We won, we moved the room in favour of the motion.

Before the debate just under half the room at 48% was FOR the motion after the debate it went up 8 points to 56%,  a clear majority of the room was now FOR the motion.


Thanks
I want to thank the President and Vice-President of UCL debating society for inviting me (the President did a brilliant job stepping in at such short notice FOR the motion). The UCL students were great - very welcoming, respectful and listened attentively. I very much enjoyed the debate. I was particularly heartened by the many who came up to me afterwards shook my hand, congratulated and thanked me and special thanks to the two sistas who supported me throughout the debate with fist pumps and big smiles as I made my points!






Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Review: Temi Odumosu’s 'Africans in English Caricature 1769-1819: Black Jokes White Humour' (2018)



I was delighted to review Temi Odumosu’s Africans in English Caricature 1769-1819: Black Jokes White Humour (2018). I first became aware of Temi’s work from a free handout at the National Gallery’s information desk The ‘Image of Black’ in National Gallery Paintings (2004), three A4 black and white, photocopied sheets. The contrast in presentation and content between her latest work and that National Gallery handout is palpable - her book is hard-backed, with mainly colour images and it’s not free, it’s £100 but more on that price later.

Temi’s ground-breaking free handout at the National Gallery, sadly not available today and its supporting website is now only available via the Wayback machine. Her work was one of the inspirations for my own series of Image of the Black in London Galleries tours. So with her books great looks and my knowledge of Temi’s work I was looking forward to reading her book.

Sample page

The very first thing that strikes you about Africans in English Caricature 1769-1819: Black Jokes White Humour are its manifest production values – it looks stunning. Page after page of beautiful full colour cartoons with supporting detailed images in black and white as well as colour. Can one imagine Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, the seminal text on the black presence in Britain being published today without a single picture? Even when pictures had to be there to support a black history text as in David Dabydeen’s revelatory commentary on the black presence in William Hogarth’s work Hogarth's Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth Century English Art, they were small, not easy to interpret black and white images. At the other end of the scale there is the monumental, multi volume, much celebrated The Image of the Black in Western Art which is both scholarly and full of colour images with many detailed images, which I have reviewed in a previous post. Lessons seemed to have been taken from both as it has the authority and scholarship ambitions of Fryer and Dabydeen with the visual impact intentions of The Image of the Black in Western Art.

Her book not only looks good it is extremely easy to navigate with its simple but effective content sections: introduction, four chapters and an epilogue. Each section has its all its footnotes grouped together at its end, making them easy to find and follow up, without cluttering the pages, adding to the book’s visual appeal and easy access. Its physical presentation and logical content arrangement make it a joy to read and to browse. It has the visual aspirations of Dabydeen’s book without suffering the drawbacks of its small, often hard to interpret, black and white reproductions.

In her introduction Temi recognises that nothing ruins a good joke like an explanation of why it should be funny and the irony in knowing that the prints were not meant for her eyes or for rigorous academic deliberation. She ‘ruins’ the jokes and in doing so delivers a thoroughly perceptive, interrogation and analysis of the visual text.

Cartoons are time capsules of not just history but of culture, fashion, taste, and language. Cartoons, even a few years old, can be challenging to interpret without a thorough knowledge of all that was happening in the news at the time as cartoonist conflate contemporary news, thoughts and ideas to make their points. Temi  deflates and unpicks the eighteenth century histories to be found in these cartoons through a masterclass of careful, detailed analysis. She shows ‘how artists use Africans as stock types and what they came to signify in the heated comic domain of the revolutionary period,’

I was particularly impressed by her analysis of the portrayal of African women - a key theme of the book - and her deconstruction of Cruikshank and Marayat’s The New Union Club.

Detail from Cruikshank and Marayat’s A Meeting of Creditor

Considering African women in the cartoons she exposes the hypocrisy to found in them, which mocked the physical attractiveness of African women which was rooted in the incompatibility of blackness and beauty, while at the same time Englishmen found them desirable. This dichotomy is exemplified in the depiction of the prostitute Black Moll’s bill to the philandering Prince of Wales for services in Cruikshank’s A Meeting of Creditors. Temi explains Cruickshank depiction is a loaded double entendre, with Black Moll’s list headed with the entry ‘Black Joke 300’. Black Joke refers to a bawdy comic song about an Englishwoman’s vagina, the cartoon coarsely identifying Moll as the ‘joke’ of the prince’s decadence at the same time suggesting the absurdity of her monetary claim. This is typical of Temi’s close, revealing analysis of the black female figure’s depiction which runs throughout the book.

Detail from The New Union Club

The New Union Club analysis develops her examination of Cruikshank and Marayat’s a ‘black joke’, which I first saw in The Slave in European Art: From Renaissance Trophy to Abolitionist Emblem edited by Massing, and McGrath (2012). This time it has even deeper research and with more reflections on the variety of attitudes and ideas associated with Africans. She unpacks the metaphors and points out the stereotypes exemplified by the spotted baby wearing a bonnet who suckles on the breast of an African woman behind Wilberforce. Temi tells us this spotted child may reveal the outcomes of miscegenation or perhaps more ominously is showing the signs of sexually transmitted disease. In doing so she gives insight into Cruickshank and Marayat’s anti-black pro slavery minds that are revealed in many characters and their grotesque representations in the cartoon.

Now let’s look at the price tag on the hardback, £100. At first that can seem a high price to pay,  however black history scholarship and study has moved on since 2004 when Temi’s listing was given away free at the National Gallery. Both Fryer’s and Dabydeen’s black and white publications would have benefited greatly from the production values to be found in Temi’s monumental work. Maybe having seen what can be done to depict black British history this might inspire their publishers to produce new editions. That price enables the publisher to create a work not just with the academic rigour to be found in Fryer’s and Dabydeen’s books but also with the beauty and wonder of The Image of the Black in Western Art, making Temi’s work not just a scholarly, informative, revealing black history book but a really beautiful, coffee-table art monograph. It will have a place not just in an academic library but it is equally at home on any coffee table around which a passion for black history is shared and debated. I thoroughly enjoyed reading, studying and just looking at Temi’s Africans in English Caricature 1769-1819: Black Jokes White Humour and so, unreservedly recommended it.


Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Playing the flute, the galoubet, and the drum

I've often wondered what the black figures playing the flute and drum at the same time might sound like in Andrea Mantegna (1505-6) The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome and Master of Frankfurt (15th century) Festival of the Archers.


I came across this piece on YouTube while searching for the galoubet - that flute with three holes close to its base in Master of Frankfurt. To hear the galoubet and drum press play...


The Galoubet and Drum 

Monday, 26 November 2018

Siobhan Stanley's COMMUNION Exhibition


Casting Mist
What I thought, thanks to Google maps, was going to be an 18 minute walk over firm ground from Robertsbridge Station to Siobhan Stanley’s Private View of her debut exhibition COMMUNION at the blackShed gallery, turned out to be a 35 minute slog in the dark, in drizzling rain over muddy bridle paths complete with dead ends in fields and trailer parks. 

I’d seen her work on line I was determined to see it in the flesh. 

I eventually arrived very damp. Once I’d taken my sopping wet coat off and cleaned my steamed-up glasses to begin looking at the works, I was greeted by a lady who demanded to know ‘Are you one of the models?’ just as I was trying to read the catalogue thru my glasses as they continued to steam up again. The gallery was small and packed and as I was still damp from my walk it was all very steamy for me. Thus, my introduction to Siobhan’s work in person was physically and personally challenging.

I was not disappointed. Once I could see, I was delighted that I’d made the effort.


My introduction to Siobhan’s work was Casting Mist on Instagram an intimate double portrait of two friends, confidants or conspirators caught sharing a whispered secret with me the viewer as an eavesdropper, the two are oblivious of my presence yet I feel I’m an interloper witnessing something I shouldn’t. That sense of shared intimacy between the sitters pervades her work with the viewer as an intruder catching a quiet shared moment between confidants. Such is the mood of her work.  The same mood of shared intimacy, this time not so conspiratorial is to be found one of her other double portraits A Little Wing Serpent. It was not just the mood of her work that caught me attention it was her lighting: soft muted Vermeer like, creating calm still effects, making her portraits serene, tranquil sometimes pensive. 

A Little Wing Serpent
So Gaz'd On Now
Her pensive tension is wonderfully caught in So Gaz’d On Now were eyes and eye contact guide the viewer around this triple portrait with the sitter on the far left though on the edge of the painting is clearly the centre of attention as the other two look to him and he gazes searchingly out of the painting at me, the viewer. With her subtle use of lighting Siobhan further emphasises that the figure of the left is the centre, waiting for me to speak or is about to speak himself, a moment of brooding intimacy has been caught.

The fact that the majority of her work features portraits of young black men adds to the wonder and power of her work for me. I am minded of Kehinde Wiley, as he too creates seemingly incongruous juxtapositions of black male bodies, Kehinde riffs on history painting compositions from the white Western canonical art such as his Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005) which plays on David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801) while Siobhan takes her inspiration from the attire and setting of Elizabethan gentlemen similar to those to be found in Nicholas Hillard miniatures without their stiffness or formality.

Kehinde Wiley (2005)       Jacques-Louis David (1801)
Siobhan Stanley (201X)          Nicholas Hillard (1547)
COMMUNION’s catalogue says Siobhan is ‘summoning us to rethink our notions of black history and relativity of truth itself’ I was minded of my own John Blank Project  and her COMMUNION exhibition share a common vision in that statement as my Project encourages one to ‘imagine  the black Tudor trumpeter’ while Siobhan’s COMMUNION invites one to ‘imagine the black Elizabethan gentlemen’.

As for that question which was my introduction to COMMUNION,  at the time I answered with a surly ‘No!’ Now having seen her work my answer has to be ‘I’d love to be!’ as to be portrayed as the catalogue describes her work with that ‘quiet pride, integrity and power’ found in all her work in COMMUNION would be an honour.