Staying Power: Portraiture and the portrayal of Africans in Art

(Staying Power at The Black Cultural Archives and Lecture Series at Dulwich Picture Gallery Introduction to the InSight series at Dulwich)

The title of this unprecedented series in conjunction with Dulwich Picture Gallery and The Black Cultural Archives comes from Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book of 1948, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain  who was an English Marxist writer and journalist. He covered the arrival in Britain of settlers from the Caribbean on the Empire Windrush.

Here we witness the incredible staying power and resilience of Africans and Caribbeans from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who were still able to rise up from the ashes of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and become leading resistant fighters and abolitionists; even though the majority of images were derogatory with the ubiquitous images of the black servant with the pearl earring and slave collar accompanying their master or mistress. But there were a few but memorable and extraordinary exceptions.  For example a portrait of Ignatius Sancho, composer, actor and writer and Abolitionist in his own right and the first known Black Briton to vote in the British Election by Sir Joshua Reynolds.  There is also the beautiful portrait of Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s Jamaican manservant,  best friend and personal assistant, whom Johnson made residual heir with £70 a year.  William Hogarth, that great eighteenth century, British caricaturist and satirist, was an anti slave campaigner, who used his art as a weapon to lampoon the British aristocracy and rising middle classes of their avarice and hypocritical behaviour.  Hogarth produced over 25 images which included representations of black people  including his Marriage à la Mode series.  Crossing over the Atlantic and stepping into the nineteenth century, is the giant of a man, Frederick Douglass, a former black African-American slave, impassioned abolitionist, brilliant writer, newspaper editor and eloquent orator whose speeches fired the abolitionist cause.  Art and Slavery made a compatible marriage.  The latter funded the former.

However, Photojournalism – a particular form of journalism that employs images to tell a news story –  from the 40s and 90s gave Caribbeans and Africans pride and returned power back to the Blacks.  The camera provided a lens through which black photographers could document their lives; and from the 40s to the 90s in particular within Black Britain, it emerged as a distinctive form of photography. Between 1940s – 1970s the first substantial body of photographic images of the black presence in Britain date back to the years and decades immediately following the end of the Second World War with the newly arrived Caribbean immigrants. The medium is the message is very clear: these immigrants respect themselves, have full confidence in their own abilities to make good lives for themselves in ‘the mother country’. The iconic photograph of this period is of the crowded bow of the Empire Windrush which has become a graphic symbol of post-war immigration from the Caribbean and other parts of the Commonwealth.  The next body of photographs acts as benchmarks of the post-war presence of Caribbean immigrants are studio portraits by high street photographers.   Now a sense of black British photography had begun to emerge and develop. One of the first British-based black person to distinguish themselves in the field of photography was Jamaican born, Vanley Burke, Armet Francis and Horace Orvé who photographed such important black literary, political and cultural figures of the period, both British, such as C.L.R James, Darcus Howe and  African-American writer,  Baldwin as well as human rights activist, Malcolm X.

I cannot omit, Autograph ABP which was formed in the 1980s, as an Association of Black Photographers formed in London which was a photographic arts agency with a brief to support and promote the work of black British photographers to increase their visibility in all areas of the Arts.

Complementing this group of fine photographers are a group of equally fine artists, for example Keith Piper, Eddie Chambers, Sonia Boyce, Sokari Douglas Camp, Donald Rodney, Stephen Wiltshire, Lubaina Himid, Chris Ofili  and Turner Prize nominee, Yinka Shonibare MBE who was the first Black British artist to be invited onto the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and now his Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle was acquired by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.  Steve McQueen is an artist now film director, who directed 12 Years a Slave – an unflinching look at human brutality.   I mention only a few. They have owned their own black identity whilst recognising their complex cultural hybridity, using Contemporary Art to address such difficult issues such as Race and Identity, Colonialsm and Post-Colonialism, the Black Experience and African Diasporic sensibilities in their art.

This exciting new InSight series  offers a new perspective on the history of the image of the black in western European art and a quick view on what Black British artists are doing today, far removed of those depictions in previous centuries.  Their inclusion in mainstream museums and galleries is still marginal but this lecture series intends to redress this gross imbalance by looking at our collection here at Dulwich and beyond to  get a glimpse of our shared black british heritage and  the enormous contribution of Africans and Caribbeans to our multicultural artistic landscape.

© Rovianne  Matovu 25 January 2015