The African figures ‘forgotten’ by England’s cultural past

A brand new English Heritage exhibition unveiled on Wednesday goals to shine a light-weight on figures historically forgotten by England’s cultural historical past.

Painting our Past: The African Diaspora in England attracts collectively new portraits of six historic figures – spanning Roman Britain to the 20th Century – that mirror the lengthy historical past of African individuals in England.

The figures embody Septimius Severus, an African-born Roman emperor who strengthened Hadrian’s Wall, and James Chappell, a black 17th Century servant at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire who saved the lifetime of the then proprietor, Sir Christopher Hatton.

The work are on show on the English Heritage-linked forts, abbeys, historic homes and barracks the place these people lived, visited or labored. This consists of the return of the portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Queen Victoria’s African goddaughter, to Osborne House, Victoria’s seaside dwelling on the Isle of Wight.

Anna Eavis, English Heritage’s curatorial director, stated: “African figures from the past have played significant roles at some of the historic sites in our care but many of their stories are not very well known.

“Placing their portraits on the partitions of these websites is a method we hope to carry their tales to life and share them with a wider viewers.”

The exhibition’s new portraits have all been commissioned from artists who themselves identify as black or mixed-heritage – read on to learn about their subject’s stories

Arthur Roberts (1897-1982) at Berwick-upon-Tweed Barracks, Northumberland by Chloe Cox

Chloe Cox’s portrait depicts Arthur Roberts, the son of a Trinidadian man, who was born in Bristol and brought up in Glasgow.

Roberts enlisted with The King’s Own Scottish Borderers, a line regiment of the British Army, in February 1917, aged 20. Based in barracks at Berwick-upon-Tweed, those within the regiment would have felt a strong affiliation with the barracks as both operational and emotional home.

Roberts fought during the World War One and survived the Battle of Passchendaele.

Cox, winner of both the 2020 Southwest School of Art Young Artist and Young Portrait Artist of the Year awards, says: “I’m an oil painter, working predominantly on canvas. My artwork seeks to signify the underrepresented and to empower minority ethnic people, growing their sense of belonging in British arts, historical past and tradition.

“As a woman of mixed heritage and identity, I refrain from idealised distortions of character and focus on bringing about the raw, the real and the authentic.

“My realism model will not easy the cracks or sweeten the options, it goals to seize the reality, from the likeness of the face to the slightness of a well-known expression.”

Dido Belle (1761-1804) at Kenwood, London by Mikéla Henry-Lowe

Mikéla Henry-Lowe’s portrait depicts Dido Belle, the daughter of a young enslaved black woman and a Royal Naval officer. Born out of wedlock, Dido was raised as part of the aristocratic Murray family in Georgian London and spent much of her life at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath in north London.

Henry-Lowe, a Jamaican-born artist who focuses on the representation of black women in society, says: “I wished to color Dido Belle as a result of a number of my portraits are of black ladies carrying head wraps representing black tradition, however Dido’s head wrap is not cultural. It was more than likely to cowl her hair as a result of on the time many did not know what to do with curly hair.

“I think it’s amazing that I’ve been given the opportunity to paint a black woman who experienced growing up in an aristocratic family, because most depictions of black women in Georgian Britain were shown as slaves.”

Emperor Septimius Severus (145-211) at Corbridge Roman Town on Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland by Elena Onwochei-Garcia

Elena’s Onwochei-Garcia’s portrait depicts Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who was born in Leptis Magna (current day Al-Khums, Libya) within the Roman province of Africa. Septimius travelled to Britain in AD 208. He strengthened Hadrian’s Wall and reoccupied the Antonine Wall with a view to increasing his empire.

Onwochei-Garcia, who says she explores the expression of racial points and ideologies via humour, in addition to how they shift over time inside energy dynamics, explains: “I was drawn to Severus because of the parallels with my own mixed heritage status (Nigerian, Spanish and German), and this made me reflect on how people might imagine someone like us to look like.

“I wished to transcend portray Rome’s African emperor, to painting a fancy particular person by listening to his character and the way he selected to be seen in his cash, statues and structure. Historically black individuals have had little management over their portrayal. Severus embodied and altered the picture of the Roman Empire.”

Abbot Hadrian (640-710) at St Augustine’s Abbey, Kent by Clifton Powell

Clifton Powell’s portrait depicts Abbot Hadrian, an African scholar in Anglo-Saxon England and the abbot of St Augustine’s Abbey. He was from Cyrenaica, a Roman/Byzantine province in North Africa.

Powell, who studied at the Jamaican School of Art in Kingston and has had work featured at numerous UK exhibits, including the International Black Art fair, says: “I’m a British Artist, born in Jamaica. St Hadrian has been a part of my life since I started his portrait. I sense his presence, so this offers me inspiration to color him.

“I feel I need to bring him to life, all the paintings I have seen of him bring me back to his time. He has captivated me with his spiritual presence and I feel him near, and while painting, I played Gregorian chants, as in a Monastery setting.”

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880) at Osborne House, Isle of Wight by Hannah Uzor

Hannah’s Uzor’s portrait depicts Sarah Forbes Bonetta, the daughter of a West African ruler, who was captured and enslaved by King Gezo of Dahomey (present-day Benin) aged 5.

Originally named Aina, she was offered as a so-called ‘diplomatic present’ to Captain Frederick Forbes of the H.M.S. Bonetta and dropped at England in 1850.

Soon after their arrival, Forbes launched her to Queen Victoria who grew so connected that she paid for her schooling and have become her guardian – recognising her as her goddaughter. Sarah visited Osborne home, Queen Victoria’s seaside dwelling on the Isle of Wight, a variety of instances throughout her life.

Uzor, who is essentially self-taught, having honed her expertise within the Zambian inventive group as a teen earlier than transferring to the UK, says: “In my artistic practice I explore the complexity of the black identity and experience. I specifically want to highlight the hidden histories and often invisible narratives of people racialised as Black in modern day history.

“During analysis I got here throughout Sarah Forbes Bonetta in David Olusoga’s e book Black and British. I used to be drawn to Sarah’s story due to her multi-layered id and the parallels I might see in my circle of relatives, notably for my youngsters, who share Sarah’s Nigerian heritage.”

James Chappell at Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire by Glory Samjolly

Glory Samjolly’s portrait depicts James Chappell, a black servant at Kirby Hall. He entered the service of the Hatton family aged 15, and in 1672 saved Kirby’s owner, Christopher Hatton, from the rubble of an explosion on Guernsey. After Christopher’s death in 1706, James was presented with pension of £20 a year. A life-changing amount of money at the time, James used it to set up home in the local area with his wife.

Samjolly, who created the social enterprise Black Aristocratic Art in 2019 to ‘decolonise’ the mainstream art history curriculum, says: “There shouldn’t be sufficient illustration of African Europeans in historic galleries or textbooks, and most frequently when they’re represented it’s as slaves, servants or abolitionists.

“I could have painted James Chappell as a servant, but there was not enough information to determine the kind of role he had, except he was favoured a great deal, and became a legend for saving Sir Christopher Hatton. I decided to paint him in the latter years of his life, with a more stoic and integral stance, a kind of man who would look back at his life and be proud.”

Painting our Past: The African Diaspora in England runs from 9 June to five November 2021.

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