THROUGHOUT THE AFRICAN DIASPORA the image and representation of black people have been fraught with a history of power, subjugation, racism and stereotype. For generations, the black community was largely absent from the visual record of societies from Europe to the Americas. When blacks lacked the means and agency to control their own images, their depictions reflected the views and perspectives of those who did. From centuries-old sketches and paintings to daguerrotypes, tin types and the expansive documentation of the Harlem Renaissance and U.S. civil rights eras in black-and-white photos, historic representations exist, but early images are rare.

Curators and scholars are beginning to address this shortfall, training their research on images dating back to the ancient world. “Black Chronicles II,” a forthcoming Autograph ABP exhibition of early photography in Britain (above), follows a number of important projects examining the historic representation of blacks.

image of blk vol 3 pt 3Since 2010, Harvard University Press has been republishing hefty volumes exploring “The Image of the Black in Western Art.” Based on an archive founded by French-American arts patron Dominique de Menil in the 1960s, the series begins with the pharaohs and continues through the fall of the Roman Empire and the early Christian era, to the Age of Discovery and the Age of Abolition. (Volumes published this year document the 20th century).

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has been hosting discussions about “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” featuring Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is shepherding the project, and other contributing scholars.

In 2012, the New York Times reported on a spate of recent books examining the historic depiction of slaves, including Maurie D. McInnis’s “Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade” and “Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World” edited by Agnes Lugo-Ortiz. The article notes that “scholars are deciphering what artists were expressing and how sitters were probably feeling, along with how audiences reacted.”

“Scholars are deciphering what artists were expressing and how sitters were probably feeling, along with how audiences reacted.”
— The New York Times

Photographer and curator Deborah Willis has essentially spent her career examining the visual representation of African Americans. After being awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2000 for her “investigation and recovery of the legacy of African-American photography,” she published “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present.” The 2002 book was the inspiration for the documentary “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People,” which is screening at the Film Forum in New York through Sept. 16. Willis, chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, is a co-producer of the film.

Across the pond, a new exhibition in London examines images of blacks in 19th and 20th century Britain. “Black Chronicles II” features a recently discovered cache of more than 200 photographs, most of which have never been exhibited or published before. The portraits include diverse subjects, from well-known figures and dignitaries to traveling performers, missionaries and unidentified black Britons. All of the images were taken in British photography studios prior to 1938. Presented by Autograph ABP, the free exhibition opens Sept. 12 at Rivington Place.

“These photographs present new knowledge and offer different ways of seeing the black subject in Victorian Britain, and contribute to an ongoing process of redressing persistent ‘absence’ within the historical record.”
— Autograph ABP

Autograph ABP describes itself as a charitable organization working internationally in photography, cultural identity, race, representation and human rights. Its programs include exhibitions, events and publishing and a “commitment to continuous critical enquiry into archive images which have been overlooked, under-researched or simply not recognised as significant previously, but which are highly relevant to black representational politics and cultural history today.”

The second in a series, “Black Chronicles II” is a culmination of Autograph ABP’s latest research and ongoing quest to find the earliest photographic image of a black person creating in the UK. The images included in the exhibition were unearthed in national public archives and discovered in private collections.

Owned by Getty Images, the Hulton Archive proved particularly fruitful, yielding 30 images of members of The African Choir, which toured Britain between 1891 and 1893. Sealed for more than 120 years, the portraits by the London Stereoscopic Company were found on glass plate negatives and are on view for the first time. CT


“Black Chroncles II” is on view Sept. 12 – Nov. 29, 2014 at Rivington Place in London.


TOP IMAGE: John Xiniwe and Albert Jonas, London Stereoscopic Company studios, 1891 | Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images


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