Slightly Off-Topic: Africans in European Art

Thanks to a recent blog entry by Afro-Europe, I learned about these two sites which are surely worth sharing even if they are not in any way related to my current research interests. But I guess, they are rather relevant within wider discussions about the relationship of Europe and European artists with Africa. And, guess what, that relationship long predates Picasso. No disrespect intended (if there ever was a good commentary of on the horrors of 20th century warfare, its Guernica!). But there have been Ethiopians who adapted and transformed Byzantine Christian art. There were the so-called Afro-Portuguese ivories probably one of the world’s earliest examples of tourist art. There the influences of Christian missionaries on 15th century Congolese arts. And, of course, European artists have depicted Africans long before ideas about racial hierarchies and the slave trade affected their vision.

Panels at the Filarete Door at St. Peter’s Cathedral. According to Lowe (2006), they respectively depict Pope Eugenius IV Consigning the Decree of Union to Abbot Anthony, the Head of the Coptic Delegation at the Council of Florence and …

… The Departure of the Coptic and Ethiopian Delegates from the Council of Florence. Both were completed in 1445. (Image Source)
























Bust of the Congolese Ambassador to the Vatican at the Basilica Sainte Marie-Majeure

























Water Colour by Bernandinio Ignacio, a capuchin monk, 1740 (Image Source)

So, here are two websites and some publications I’d like to quickly recommend:

* The Image of the Black in Western Art is a series of publications resulting form a research project originally started by Dominique de Menil in the 1960s.

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume I: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire (November 2010)

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”: Part 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood (November 2010)

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”: Part 2: Africans in the Christian Ordinance of the World (November 2010)

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume III: From the “Age of Discovery” to the Age of Abolition: Part 1: Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque (November 2010)

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume III: From the “Age of Discovery” to the Age of Abolition: Part 2: Europe and the World Beyond (Fall 2011)

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume IV: From the American Revolution to World War I: Part 1: Slaves and Liberators (Spring 2012)

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume IV: From the American Revolution to World War I: Part 2: Black Models and White Myths (Spring 2012)

On their website, there is a nice image gallery and a video of a presentation by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Two articles that have come out of the project have recently (February 2011) published in Apollo Magazine: The Image of the Black in Western Art and Race in Classical Art.

Even more resources are available on the website of the exhibition Black is Beautiful. The exhibition examines selected works by artists from the Low Lands that depicted Africans. It offers an interesting selection of short videos, for example explaining who the women is standing next to Moses in this painting by the Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678):




















(Image Source)


Find the answer here.


These are, of course, not the first exhibitions and publications on the subject. Already in 1970, Snowden published a volume on depictions of Ethiopians in Greco-Roman Arts. In 1992 Pieterse published White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture.

P.S. Let me clarify, why I think these historical depictions are important. This has nothing to do with absolving Europeans from the history of slavery, colonialism and contemporary forms of exploitation. Rather, they highlight that European perceptions of Africans changed throughout time in response to historical circumstances and the nature of the relations and trade between Europeans and the African with whom they had contact. As such, they provide evidence that racism is not natural but an ideology that evolved at a particular time in response to and in order to legitimate historical relations. This is not to say that there were no negative stereotypes before the Atlantic slave trade required a re-imagening of Africans as lesser humans to justify the trade. I suspect to an extent we are hardwired to fall back on stereotypes in our relations with other human beings. Nobody can genuinely know and understand the personal and collective histories and cultural influences that make every human being on this planet the person they are. But, I guess it’s important that these images document that stereotypes can change and be adapted – and, most importantly, that they do not provide a historical truth but just one interpretation. No?

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