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.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Reparation Debate at Durham University

The invite to speak at Durham University debating society came out of the blue. 

..........As an Independent Art and Cultural Historian and current work with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies on Black British History, you would certainly make an engaging and highly knowledgeable addition to the debate.

This houses believes:

Britain Owes Reparations to its Former Colonies
8:30pm Debating Chamber, Palace Green
Friday 12th October 

I was honoured and delighted to accept their invitation to speak at their debate.

The invite was particularly timely for me following my post on Scotland’s Dollar Academy where I described  its need for Reparation, in doing so recognising where the source of the funds that founded the Academy came from - John McNabb’s slavery earnings - it has a slave ship as the school’s badge.

The organisation and my reception was excellent, as was the hospitality of the Chairman and the Society

Me, Chairman Chris Clarke, Jason Hickel
The Speakers

Anthropologist, author, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has taught at the London School of Economics, the University of Virginia, and Goldsmiths London.

An Arts blogger who specialises in the Black African presence in Renaissance Europe, he is currently working with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society and an Adjunct Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

A second year law student at Durham , she stood in at last minute for the original speaker who had cancelled.

We, the speakers had a very agreeable pre debate dinner with Chris Clarke, chairman of the society. Tellingly, nobody accepted Chris’s generous offer of wine, we enjoyed water and polite, random witty conversation. Throughout the dinner there was an atmosphere of friendly competition - nobody over keen to share their position.

The Debate

Proposition Dr Jason Hickel
He argued from as factual , reality basis the North made and continues to make trillions of dollars from the South: for every 1$ of aid to the North , the South receives 24$ this needs to be redressed

Opposition Dr John Hemmings
He reasoned why pick on Britain , Britain is not alone there were other countries and empires who are are potentially guilty where do we stop, further it’s complex, how do manage’s who receives what and why. 

Proposition Michael Ohajuru (Me)
My argument was based on the the metaphor of slavery as a stab in the back - the removal of the knife is not enough - the wound needs to be healed. Reparation was needed to heal that festering wound in doing so address the social, cultural and economic imbalances caused by slavery. You can download my complete address here.

Opposition Roshni Gulati
Roshni argued it was unfair to single Britain out as there were others who had equally bad records of colonialisation. Further it would be demeaning even patronising to present day inhabitants with Reparation 

The Questions

Ireland, Thailand and others survived  colonialistaion and today thrive - why can’t others?
Don’t they already receive reparation via foreign aid ?
It would be impossible task to track down and pay all the descendants  
Isn’t it counter prodcutive to continue to make the dependant ?
Are they not better ways to help rather than punish Britain?

The Result

The Chairman invited the audience to vote by shouting Yay or Nay and the respective volumes would decide the winner. The debate prove too close to call on a volume only basis, it was impossible to decide so a division lobby was called. The result was 95 Nay  verses 100 Yay - Jason & I lost ! 

I believe we did have a gender win as the Yays certainly had an upper octave pitch and volume. However on reflection in a room of mostly white privileged young men I believe any Reparation argument would have been lost, might even go as far to say we had lost before we began. Nevertheless it was a great experience and many of those I spoke to afterwards enjoyed my input as I did their company as we argued into the night after the debate. #GreatExperience 


Sunday, 18 March 2018

Slavery Reparation Opportunity Discovered in the National Gallery

Johann Liss (c1622) Judith in the Tent of Holofernes , Oil on Canvas 128.5 x 99 cm
While doing my research on the National Gallery's Judith in the Tent of Holofernes, in preparation for an Image of the Black in London Galleries tour of the National Gallery, I was intrigued to find there is not one but two black presence connections to this work.

The first and the most obvious  black presence are the terrified, haunting eyes of its black maid staring at Judith, she holds the basket in which her mistress is placing the severed head of the eponymous general in the picture, Liss captures that look of horror in her eyes at the task in hand.

Johann Liss Judith in the Tent of Holofernes [Detail]
The second presence is not so apparent.

The painting was a gift to the National Gallery by the royal vet John Archibald Watt Dollar in 1931. He was educated at Dollar Academy (they only have the name in common) Scotland's leading private school and The Times 2018 Scottish Independent Secondary School of the Year. He went on to have an illustrious veterinary career.  Amongst several prestigious positions he held was as President of the Royal College of Surgeons, from his portrait he looks every inch a distinguished Edwardian gentlemen. It is his school - Dollar Academy - which provides the second black presence.

Dollar Academy was founded in 1818 by a gift from John MacNabb (1732 - 1802) who is described  on  the school's website as being a 'trader....[b]orn to a poor family,  [who] went to sea as a young boy and eventually made his fortune as a ship owner.   In his will he specified that the interest on half his estate (some £60 000 -worth several millions today) was to provide "a Charity or School for the parish of Dollar and shire of Clackmannan wheir [sic] I was born".' While The Gazetteer for Scotland describes Mc Nabb as a '[s]hip-owner and philanthropist.'  What both sites fail to mention is MacNabb's connections with slavery - the source of his benefaction. This omission  is rectified by his entry on  FlagsUpScotJam's website  which says : [MacNabb] is known to have sent out 4 ships called Friendship, Maria, Pitt and Struggler which acquired a total of 348 slaves [1]

Dollar Academy
Details of the trips made by the MacNabb's slave ships are to be found -  here - The Slave Ship Voyages Database and, he is also mentioned in University College London's Slavery Compensation Database so, the sources of MacNabb's wealth are well known and documented.

The Academy's prospectus talks about the ship in its logo as 'a symbol of the journey that many thousands have embarked upon'. It goes on to say  'Dollar sees as immensely precious the cargo of lives that it has borne over the years, and has helped to launch into the world of adulthood and its demands.'[2]
Dollar Academy Logo
The metaphor of MacNabb's Dollar Academy as a ship with its  'precious…cargo of lives'  is deeply ironical when its founder made his fortune transporting enslaved Africans by sea as part of the heinous triangular trade in which the cargo of enslaved where packed as shown in the infamous plan of the Brookes, slave ship showing how 454 enslaved Africans were accommodated on board one slave ship.

Detail from the Brookes Slave Ship Plan
Kenneth Lu's model, model, now in National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution) shows a typical slave ship in the early 1700s on the Middle Passage from Africa to America. To preserve their profits, captains and sailors tried to limit the deaths of the enslaved Africans from disease, suicide, and revolts. In the grisly arithmetic of the transatlantic slave trade, captains usually chose between two options: pack in as many people as possible and hope that most survive, or put fewer aboard, improve the conditions between decks, and hope to lose fewer to disease.

Kenneth Lu's Model of Slave Ship
I ask my tour groups (I've now done the tour a number of times) should Dollar Academy update its web site, the consensus response is yes, the source of MacNabb's funds should be noted. Most want action not words, maybe a scholarship aimed at BAME pupils. There are travel scholarships for Dollar Academy pupils there appears to be no scholarships for entrants from outside for example Eton's Kings scholarship. Also perhaps Georgetown University in USA presents a model, the institution was saved through the sale of 272 slave in 1832,  today the University offers an admissions edge to descendants of slaves as part of a comprehensive atonement for the University's historical ties to slavery. Maybe Dollar Academy could do similar for pupils of Afro-Caribbean descent?

This of course, is part of a much bigger wider, bigger debate on slavery reparation. The slave owners received compensation for the loss of property when slavery was abolished by Britain in 1833, the Slavery Compensation Database shows how that compensation was distributed amongst the owners of enslaved Africans and how that wealth is manifest to this day. The enslaved received nothing. That is why some form of reparation is only just and fair.

The challenges of reparation are evident from David Cameron's comment   that Jamaica 'should move on from painful legacy of slavery' in doing so ignoring calls for reparation. While Kehinde Andrew describes reparations challenges quoting Malcolm X 'if you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made'. Kehinde argues Britain 'won’t even admit the knife is there'  

To conclude, acts like Georgetown University's  are a step on the way to healing the knife wound of slavery,  I would argue Dollar Academy can play its part in the healing process by recognition of the origins of its benefaction and offering places to those children of African descent with the intellectual capacity but not the economic resources,  in order that the Academy's 'precious…cargo of lives' actually reflects Dollar's origins and confronts the sobering irony found in its prospectus.

UPDATE 18th Sept 2019

In preparation for my talk at the National Gallery on 16th Oct on this work I note that the Dollar Academy website has been updated its History page opening paragraph begins:

The school’s founder was Captain John McNabb, a local boy who was born in 1732 to a poor family, but who made his fortune at sea. He captained, owned and leased out many ships over the decades and it is known that four voyages transported slaves to the West Indies in 1789-91, forty years before the Abolition Act of 1833.

[1]  FlagsUpScotJam  
John McNabb was originally a poor boy from the parish of Dollar. He made his fortune at sea and became a rich London merchant. He is known to have sent out 4 ships called Friendship, Maria, Pitt and Struggler which acquired a total of 348 slaves in Senegambia and the Gold Coast and three of these ships went to Jamaica. Dollar Academy was founded through a bequest from his Will. The interests on his legacy, of some £40,000 on his death in 1802, was to be used for the provision of "a charity or school for the poor of the parish of Dollar wheir [sic] I was born".

[2] Dollar Academy Prospectus 
The ship is our school logo - a reminder of Captain John McNabb's own vessels that enabled him, at the end of the eighteenth century, to build up a fortune with which to found the school, which welcomed its first pupils in 1818. It is also a symbol of the journey that many thousands have embarked upon in the years that Dollar has been welcoming young people through its Bronze doors

The Latin motto says of the school: Juventutis veho fortunas - "I bear the fortunes of youth". Dollar sees as immensely precious the cargo of lives that it has borne over the years, and has helped to launch into the world of adulthood and its demands. That it has been instrumental in forming character and in developing talent is attested to by generations of former pupils, who not only return on a regular basis themselves, but send their children to be educated, and their children's children. Thus, links of deep affection are created, and maintained by the strong network of Former Pupils across not only the UK but the world itself.