Monday, 29 November 2021

BLACK - a graphic bio of Tobias Taitt with graphics by Anthony Smith


Tobais Taitt's graphic bio BLACK is the second book I've read in as many months that tells a harrowing story of the cruelty and brutality being brought up in the English care system in the 80s and 90s with a teenage boy search for sex and love in an uncaring, indifferent world. Where Malik Al Nasir's story in Letters To Gil is a story ending in purpose and direction with his twin careers of music and education despite being brought up within the barbarity of the care system I wrote a review for Goodreads.  BLACK ends with a profound teenage revelation leaving us to  speculate on his adult life and career

Tobais's  story like Malik has a challenging family background but not as desperate - Malik had a confusing homelife with one father with two wives, Tobais's mother had eight children by eight different fathers, he was the seventh , she was divorced four times and murdered one husband in revenge for murdering her brother by pouring boiling oil over his head while he sat in a bath after allegedly raping her. 

The narrative is very candid, often sad as we read of Tobais isolation in response to his mistreatment by an uncaring system and his resulting anger and rage - there are a few moments of happiness but there are often short lived as the uncaring system takes over with the equally cruel and and brutal police often close at hand to regulate Tobais's behaviour. One scene that struck home with me was his rejection by his first crush following her rejection after taking him home to meet her parents 'The reason?  I was black and her father didn't like it' A scenario many young black boys like myself are familiar with.

Anthony Smith's graphics are innovative including a wonderful homage to  Kerry James Marshall's A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self. His portrayal's of Tobais's emotions, his inner thoughts  and his rage are compelling, totally convincing. The text and graphics work well together as drills down to make a point ...told brilliantly in the last few graphics as Tobias has his epiphany. I will not reveal it, I leave it to you to read and be as moved as I was. 

To conclude a good looking, very readable book - a page turner - I read it in two sessions. When one reflects on one's own childhood and its perceived difficulties then reads BLACK telling of  Tobais's upbringing in care it makes one  realise just how fortunate so many of us are. A sober, but highly recommended read. 


Saturday, 5 June 2021


It was not until I was reading the acknowledgements that I was reminded that I’d helped in a very small way to make this important and wonderful book happen - Rebecca Hall’s WAKE:THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF WOMEN LED-SLAVE REVOLTS  with illustrations by Hugo Martînez published June 2021.  Rebecca writes ‘I also joyfully thank all of Wake’s supporters on Kickstarter’ I was one of those supporters in 2018.


 Wake's Kickstarter Proposal (2018)

The book’s subtitle, for me, uses the descriptor hidden for Black history correctly. All too often Black history is described as hidden, forgotten, untold and so on , implying some agency denying the history being  brought to light when all that’s required is an enquiring mind and a few moments with Google. However in this case Rebecca’s history is really hidden – the history of Black woman. I know this from the work on my presentation on the Queen of Sheba from the Bible and Andromeda from the Classics both women were Black but were actively denied their Black identity - Misogynoir and the History of The Image of the African Woman in Western European Art

Rebecca tells a real hidden history one in which the deeds of men - Black and white – are noted while the acts of Black women most times go unrecorded. It’s in that unreceording, traces, clues are left of Black women’s presence and agency. Rebecca looks at eighteenth records of enslavement in institutions -  academic and commercial - on both sides of the Atlantic in an attempt to bring that Black women’s presence  to life, from delving into the uncatalogued records of the New York library to be being thrown out of the Lloyds of London archives being told ‘we decide who can see our records and for what purpose.’ 

It was the response of Lloyds that intrigued me, I was minded of the NY Times 1619 Project discussing the links between capitalism and enslavement  where it says: A majority of credit powering the American slave economy came from the London money market. Years after abolishing the African slave trade in 1807. I’ve written to Lloyds to find out more about that statement, more of that if and when Lloyds get back to me. 

She tells her journey to find the truth of the Black women’s presence, with as she says ‘with a measured use of historical imagination’ to tell the story behind the statistic that at least one in ten of the slave ships had a revolt on board and ‘the more women onboard a slave ship, the more likely the revolt. 

The book talks of the barbarity of the trade to women and their bodies. Rebecca writes of pregnant enslaved Black woman sentenced to death by hanging having her execution ‘delayed until after she gave birth because that baby was someone’s property.’ Of the heroism of the on-board revolts and of the ultimate self-sacrifices – the suicides of the Middle Passage. Stories, brilliantly and emotionally brought to life, then and now as we move in our mind’s eye from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century thro Hugo’s innovation in telling the story in graphic form.

Hugo’s illustrations artfully tells Rebecca's story innovatively, often with much emotion and realism. For example, relating her lived experience as Black woman on the streets of New York, being forcibly brushed aside by an anonymous twentieth first century suited White business man, hurrying by, brief case in hand, who doesn’t break his stride, rushing on, ignoring the incident; contrasting that with an eighteenth century White man doing exactly the same thing but with a whip in hand,  eerily reflected in a window.


Rebecca in deed tells a hidden history and thru Hugo’s innovation in illustration the story is brought to life. Wake’s an emotional, challenging, thought provoking book. I was profoundly caught in its wake, the wake Rebecca describes of the victors’ version of history which erases resistance. Hugo on every page of Wake makes that resistance visually real as Rebecca brings it back to life through her measured historical imagination. To conclude, I’m feeling quite pleased with myself, that in a small way I have helped make this very important and highly readable book happen – a must read.












Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Review: Chater, Kathleen. (2021) Henry Box Brown: From Slavery to Show Business,

Review Chater, Kathleen. (2021)  Henry Box Brown: From Slavery to Show Business, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina, USA

Kathy’s highly readable latest book is the biography of the African American, fugitive slave, abolitionist and entertainer – Henry ‘Box’ Brown - born around 1815 into slavery on a planation in Richmond Virginia from where he conceived an ingenious  plan to escape enslavement – he would be mailed to freedom in a box to the free North. His plan worked, hence that middle name. Kathy describes how he wrote his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, and commissioned a panorama, a series of anti-slavery images along with a depiction of his escape.

He toured with his box, the Narrative and panorama in the Northern free states before fleeing to Britain in 1850 following passing of the Fugitive Slave Act. Britain became his home for 25 years, where he married again and had a second family. Before the Civil War he toured Britain becoming a celebrated abolitionist, speaking out against slavery and its horrors. After the American Civil War, when his abolitionist anti-slavery message was no longer needed, he reinvented himself in order to earn a living, using the acting and enteraining skills he had developed touring to create Prof. H. Box BrownKing of the Mesmerists and The African Prince mesmerist and conjuror acts. He returned to America in 1875 and continued touring. He died in 1897 in Canada.


The book’s contents page reads like a play, making the book easy to follow and read, as well as to dip into. Kathy divides his life into three acts which each act having a number of scenes. Act 1 Liberty describes his early years, his escape to freedom and the start of anti-slavery touring, escaping the Fugitive Slave Act to Britain, ending with how he has to reinvent himself in the face of difficulties; Act 2 Partnership tells of his marriage, more touring and more changes as he develops other lecture subjects, including the Indian Mutiny, and finally Act 3 Magic tells of his life after slavery ended in America and his abolitionist story no longer needed to be told.


There are some nice personal touches such as when discussing why there are so few ‘women of colour’ to be found in the crime records. Kathy tells us this is ‘partly because women were (and are) more law abiding’ (my emphasis). As well as giving her opinion ‘The Welsh…tend to regard everything that comes from England as culturally inferior.’ 


Henry Box Brown is a very enjoyable book to read, diligently researched with an authoritative scholastic air yet still very accessible. Her many quotes and references are backed by detailed endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography. I particularly like the way Kathy uses sub headings to break the story up including  a Betteridge headline showing her journalist roots – ‘[Henry Box Brown] the First Magician of Colour?’  - I leave you to guess the answer.


If you are looking for an accessible introduction to understanding Henry Box Brown’s life and how a fugitive slave survived, even thrived on the anti-slavery lecture and presentation circuit in Victorian England alongside others such as Ellen and William Craft, William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass, then this is the book for you. #Recommended.

The Black King a slave ? No!

Twice I re ent times I have read that image of the Black King has its origins in slavery both times from leading white Western institutions who appear to have only one lens for the observation of  Black history - slavery. All Black history leads back to slavery in their eyes. This is wrong. The Black King in Adoration images does not have its roots in slavery, The image has a rich and complex history which rooted in bible study, courtly practice and artistic tradition.


The first time was a piece in the Guardian which included the statement:

The emergence of a realistically portrayed black character in Renaissance art reflected ….. a seismic shift in global events as European ships, led by Portugal and Spain, explored the Atlantic and established trading – and slaving – outposts on the African coast. 

The Guardian Jonathan Jones Mon 21 Dec 2020 

I was so incensed by this poorly researched and ill-informed piece I wrote a lengthy tweet which sought  to correct the piece's error.

The second time was Getty Museum blog post about their exhibition Balthazar A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art (November 19, 2019–February 16, 2020):
[I]t would take nearly 1,000 years for European artists to begin representing Balthazar, the youngest of the three kings, as a black man. Why? The explanation can be found through a closer look at the history of this period—specifically, in the rise of the African slave trade in mid-1400s.

Getty Museum Blog May 9, 2019 , updated November 19, 2019 

No tweet this time I will respond to the closing sentence of their blog post  (sic) We invite your input on this work, our approach, and what we have shared here.

The idea that one of the three Magi could be Black, predates White Western European chattel slavery - the Atlantic trade in enslaved African people dates from the 15th century. Equally the Black magus image predates that trade as it first recorded in the mid 14th century Holy Roman Empire Bohemia.

The image was not a response to what the Guardian calls a "seismic shift in events led by slavery"'  nor was it as the Getty museum says due "specifically, [to] the rise of the African slave trade in mid-1400s." Its origin is complex, on the one hand  rooted in the age old conflict between church and state - Pope and Emperor - on the other what can only be called  Renaissance cognitive dissonance as ideas and images became conflated.

The Roman theologian Tertullian was the first  to suggest that the Magi were kings basing his idea on an interpretation of Psalms 72:10-11 ‘The kings of Tarshish....the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him’.  There were other Adoration prophesies to be found in the Old Testament though more obscure -  Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon and ‘three mighty men’ visiting David. Solomon and David were both kings of the Jews.

The emergence and development of the black Magus was complicated by myths and themes around two other blacks - Prester John, the mythical Ethiopian King and the Queen of Sheba – their iconography complicated and contaminated that of the black Magus.  It is safe to say is that Cologne played an important role in the mid fourteenth century and perhaps earlier in portraying one of the Magi as black : the patron saint of the city was the black Saint Maurice whose representation perhaps, has its origins in the Ethiopians Frederick II (1194-1250) met on his Crusades; the city also also had the three Magi represented on its coat of arms and its Cathedral contains the shrine of the three kings.

So to say that the image was a response to slavery or was specifically related slavery is incorrect and ill-informed,  its origin predates the transatlantic slave in enslaved Africans. Essentially the Adoration composition celebrates all earthly Kings coming together to pay homage  to the heavenly King - Jesus God made man, King of Heaven and Earth. 

To conclude the images of the Black Magus  has a history which began before the trade in enslaved people,  part of a very different story - slavery is NOT the only lens to consider the Black image and its  history.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Image of the Black in London Galleries Webinars


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If you like what you see and read on this blog you can hear the history, the ideas and thinking I discuss in my blog by attending one of my online webinars for more go to my Image of the Black in London Galleries web site or book now on Eventbrite.

A Sister Saint to St Maurice - St Fidis

St Fidis                                                       St Maurice

Sister and Brother ReliquaryBusts

St Fidis (1), a sister saint to St Maurice,  was a short-lived (c1525-27) invention of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenberg perhaps a response to early presences of Christianised black ladies in waiting at the German Renaissance Court. One of these lades is seen in the Master of the  Goslar Sibyl’s Calenberg Altarpiece now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


Calenberg Altarpiece Center panel
Boston Museum of Art

Calenberg Altarpiece Detail showing Black lady in waiting

(1) Kaplan, Paul. (2016). The Calenberg Altarpiece: Black African Christians in Renaissance Germany  In Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anne Kuhlmann (Eds.), GERMANY AND THE BLACK DIASPORA Points of Contact, 1250-1914 (pp. 21-37) Berghahn Books

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.