Socialist Worker

Black Victorians exhibition

by Joseph Kisolo-Ssonko
Issue No. 1972

Black Victorians — Black people in British Art 1800–1900
Manchester Art Gallery
Until 8 January 2006
Phone 0161 235 8888

This fascinating exhibition organised by the Manchester Art Gallery and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (where it transfers to in January) contains assorted depictions of black people in Victorian Britain.

It includes paintings, sculpture, prints and photography, which give us a window through which we can steal a look at these largely forgotten people.

Of course these depictions only allow us a very partial glimpse of this world — one skewed away from the average Joe and towards those who managed to lead extraordinary lives or catch the eye of a white artist.

Unfortunately the exhibition has not been able to find any work by black artists of the time.

One of what seemed to me the most affecting exceptions to the emphasis on the rich and powerful is William Windus’s depiction of a young black sailor boy.

It subtly screams out the pain and poverty that must have been the reality for most normal people (black and white) of the time.

Also entrancing is a photo of a group of veterans from the Battle of Trafalgar, which includes two men of African descent sitting ­alongside fellow white veterans.

Among the characters that shine out in this exhibition is the actor Ira Aldridge, who won critical acclaim in Manchester — where there was a powerful movement for the abolition of slavery — for his ethnically charged portrayal of Othello.

There are a number of fascinating portrait photographs of Sarah Forbes Bonnetta, a West African slave “adopted” and “civilised” by Queen Victoria who paid for her schooling.

Of course many of these depictions of black people, even those created in order to aid the movement to abolish slavery, are tainted with racist ideology.

That said, the dignity of the everyday struggle to survive and to exist as a full human being shines throughout the exhibition.

For me the most inspiring painting was The Pipe of Freedom by Thomas Smith (1869).

It depicts a proud black man smoking a pipe in front of a poster of Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation which declared the rights of slaves to freedom.

Also well worth checking out is poet Benjamin Zephaniah’s selection of photographs from the National Portrait Gallery — Benjamin’s Britain — which is showing alongside this exhibition.

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Article information

Sat 15 Oct 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1972
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