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.


kadian said...

A very useful review. Thank you. I shall recommend it for my university.

Clipping Path said...

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Clipping Path said...

This is actually very informative article - not like most of what I see online. Thanks for the free share and looking forward reading your updates! simply wow!