The African presence in Western Art

Interview with curators Sylviane Diouf (Schomburg Center) and Joaneath Spicer (Walters Art Museum) about the African presence in Western and Asian art.

Adoration of the Magi, ca 1514 (Princeton University Art).

The exhibit, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe,” is the first of two important exhibitions devoted to African diasporas in the age of slave trades that opened in 2014. It was organized by the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, and then displayed at the Princeton University Art Museum. Visitors were invited to explore the roles of Africans and their descendants in Renaissance Europe, as revealed in compelling paintings, drawings, and sculptures of the period. “Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers,” the second exhibition, was a unique opportunity to discover for the very first time the lives and achievements of East Africans enslaved in India in photographic reproductions of paintings and contemporary photographs. Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers was set up by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of The New York Public Library, and was later on view at George Mason University as well as the Museum of African American History in Boston in the United States, before traveling to India. Jean-Philippe Dedieu and Noémie Ndiaye interviewed the respective curators, Sylviane Diouf of the Schomburg Center and Joaneath Spicer of the Walters Art Museum.

How would you describe the genealogy of exhibitions devoted to the African presence in Western Art? What are the main new perspectives offered by the exhibition you curated?

Joaneath Spicer: Well, it is a fairly short genealogy. There have been scattered examples in the past, but the genealogy of exhibitions is very different from the genealogy of scholarship. Moreover, unlike those previous scattered examples, I did not want to do an exhibition about the “Image of the Black in Western Art.” What I wanted was not the image; I wanted to know who the people in the paintings were. I am sure that is part of my orientation: if I had remained an academic, it would not have occurred to me to think about the visitor’s experience and allow it to influence my scholarship. People are interested in other people. I knew perfectly well from talking to friends, museum visitors, and colleagues, that it was their first interest; and certainly, for visitors to the show who themselves are at least in part of African ancestry, the issue of identification was very strong. It seemed to me the absolutely natural reaction and, therefore, I was going to let that guide me. We are still getting requests from high schools, from colleges, certainly from historically black schools, who want to engage with the catalogue of our exhibition, and I am willing to bet it is partially because it is about the people. To me, that is the critical thing.

What led you to organize the exhibition “Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers”?

Sylviane Diouf: My aim was to show people that the African diaspora is not limited solely to the United States, because there is a great deal of that viewpoint here: people are aware of the Caribbean, Brazil at a pinch, but regarding all the rest, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru etcetera, people simply have no idea. So even just considering the Atlantic slave trade, there is insufficient knowledge. There is a distinct lack of awareness about the African diaspora in Europe, let alone in the Indian Ocean area! What I wanted to do was to shed some light on the other diasporas, starting with a digital exhibition  in 2011,which was very successful. Subsequently, I brought “Soulful Stitching: Patchwork Quilts of Africans (Siddis) in India”; an exhibition curated by Henry Drewal of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was enormously successful too. Two years later, in 2013, I decided to curate this historical exhibition, and that was also an extraordinary discovery for visitors.

What difficulties are encountered by academics carrying out research on this region and on this subject in particular?

Sylviane Diouf: As regards the representation in art, identification is often difficult as opposed to the situation in Europe. In Europe, when you see a crowd in a painting, it is easy to notice a dark-skinned individual. In India, it is naturally more complicated because there is a gradation of skin colours. In Indian art you have people who are depicted as being very dark but who aren’t African, they are in fact Indian natives. In certain cases, Africans have been depicted with a type of colourful turban or particular hat, but that isn’t the case for all Africans. Generally however we are talking about the depiction of particular individuals here. They are often very well-known individuals due to their having attained very important positions. They are thus easy to identify, whether they may have been prime ministers or famous eunuchs.

Do we have a rough idea of the size of the African population in India during the period in question?

Sylviane Diouf: It is more complex than in the case of the Atlantic slave trade where we now have precise figures and databases relating to each ship. For the Indian Ocean area in general, the figures that we have are simply estimations, which range considerably, making it very difficult to be more precise. In saying that however, intercommunity marriage was practized to some extent, and there are therefore certainly some people who are not aware of the fact that they have African ancestors.

The various pieces you exhibited show both slaves and emancipated slaves. What kind of occupations did those free men of color have in Renaissance European societies?

Joaneath Spicer: In the first place, they are what you would normally call high-skilled manual labor, because people received money to set up their business, dowry, etc, but, even in the best circumstances, they hardly ever received an education. So that you often see them entering a subsistence class: they work as bakers, or in transportation, on boats, driving donkeys … Of course there are a few people who did receive really good educations — someone like the noted scholar Juan Latino, for instance, although he is highly unusual in that regard. So you do have some doctors and some lawyers and clerks of all sorts. In terms of religious figures you are much more likely to find the situation of Benedict the Moor, though. He was a Third Order Franciscan. Some free men of color could also be found at court. Within a court environment you could rise much faster than in a regular urban environment, which was ruled by guilds and craft groups — at court, all you needed to rise was the favor and gratitude of your owner or employer, In one painting depicting a scene in Lisbon, we see a black nobleman riding by in the foreground. He is easily identifiable as a nobleman because of the sign of the order that he is wearing on his cape. He used to be a witty court jester: he rose through the ranks, was eventually freed, kept rising, and then — what do you know — he was ennobled!

What was the role of black women in Western Renaissance societies? Are there some esthetic features specific to the representation of black femininity in the paintings you exhibited?

Joaneath Spicer: There is no question that what we know about jobs, moving up in the world, specific job descriptions or even a title that seems neutral like “baker” is about free men of color, not women. Black women suffered many disadvantages at this time, and first of all, you can imagine that a lot of the slaves that were bought for urban establishments, homes, would be women for domestic work. In domestic work you are not going to rise up. Additionally, when you have been trained in domestic work – if you are freed, what are you going to do? Probably more domestic work, which does not offer a way of rising up like a carpenter could by opening his own place, for instance. Domestic work does not work that way. And then, of course, there is the other side of the coin, which is that you were greatly in danger of being forced into a sexual relationship. However, in the paintings of the period, I would say that Black women are not necessarily sexualized. I don’t see them so much sexualized as estheticized, really. I think in real life there certainly was as strong exploitative dimension, but I don’t actually see it in the art.

Was there a specific way to paint and portray an African person in Renaissance Art?

Joaneath Spicer: I would have to say no. To my mind, Renaissance portrayal is much less stereotypic than what we have left over from Greek and Roman antiquity, which seems to be operating with very basic types. In the Renaissance, art is dealing with real people much more, and the minute you have real people, you are going to have tremendous variation. This is one of the things I was harping on in this exhibition – some of the general editors of “The History of the Black in Western Art” emphasized that painted Blacks are stereotypes, that there is just a stereotype. That is true in medieval art, but not in Renaissance art.

How were race and status intertwined? Would you say that the status of the subject depicted had any influence on the way they were represented?

Joaneath Spicer: It would be unavoidable that it had some, but on the other hand, some of the greatest and most sensitive expressive portrayals are of people we would have reason to think were slaves. So it can almost be exactly the reverse of what you might expect.

  • Part II can be read here.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

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Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.