Jonah Albert, The Observer (London), Jan. 7, 2007
Last week, I played a game that I sometimes find amusing. You can play it, too. Have a wander around any major British art institution and play ‘spot the black face’. There’s just one rule. The gallery assistants — the security staff — don’t count.
At the National Gallery, where I am a curatorial fellow, the only tinted visages I spotted after 15 minutes belonged to a couple of verbose Americans. I didn’t see any Brits; it seems that getting British black people to check out art is an uphill struggle.
The Inspire scheme, which I am part of, was initiated by the Arts Council two years ago in an attempt to get more black and Asian people into curatorial positions in London and help rectify the imbalance. Let’s face it; there are very few from black or ethnic minority backgrounds — they account for less than 5 per cent of full-time curatorial staff.
Still, now Inspire has begun its attempts to sort out staffing levels, what’s up with the attendances? Figures show that 43 per cent of the British population visited a gallery or museum last year, but I know from just working in a gallery that the percentage of those from ethnic minorities was in single figures.
An obvious culprit hides in the nature of the National Gallery’s collection: Western European painting from 1200 to the turn of 19th century was the remit it was given when it was established in the early 19th century. Other institutions would collect and display Eastern and African Art; the National Gallery was set up to focus on old master paintings.
To the minds of those who choose not to engage with the place, it’s little more than the work of some dead men — well, mainly dead white men.
The argument often put forward is that people like to see themselves in art. They want to see stories and faces they can relate to. And there are plenty of images of black people in the National Gallery, if you happen to be a Wise Man from the East (as in dozens of Nativity scenes), or a liveried servant (pouring wine for white masters across all sorts of canvases).
What fascinates me, though, is getting behind these stereotypes and looking for the real story. Unpeeling the onion exposes a far from tokenistic black presence which started way before Windrush. A look at the social, political and historical context in which the old masters constructed their works reveals a bigger picture, a Europe that wasn’t at all isolated from Africa.
A good example of a picture with history is Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando by Degas. La La had an unusual talent; she could support a cannon from her teeth while hanging upside down on a trapeze and having the gun fired. (This is a stunt that should not be attempted at home.) The fantastically athletic portrait depicts La La dangling from the roof of the circus by her teeth. Here you have a painting by a French man of a black woman called Olga Kaira born in 1858 in Stettin, Germany, performing her amazing act.
You don’t need a black face in a painting for it to hold stories relevant to black people. The paintings in the National Gallery deal with major life themes: love, loss, death, jealousy, betrayal, war, peace, power and many more ideas, all of which are just as relevant to black people as anyone else. But it’s also significant that behind many of the portraits of white folk in their finery lurks the ghostly presence of an invisible black population.
Zoffany’s painting of Mrs Oswald shows a lemon-lipped, bored-looking woman trussed in a furbelowed dress. Joshua Reynolds’s image of Banastre Tarleton depicts a handsome, if somewhat camp and bouffant, soldier in full military dress. The buried story behind both Persil-white portraits tells of African enslavement, Caribbean plantations, slave factories on the West African coast, abolition and slave revolts in Florida. More history than you’d imagine on first glance.
Mrs Oswald and Colonel Tarleton led fabulous lives off the profits of slavery. It was those links with the slave trade that helped fuel both art collecting and the obsession with building grand country houses in the 18th century. If that history is not enough to entice minorities into our museums, there are all the other issues which affect attendance — class, education, the immigrant mentality, employment status.
It remains to be seen whether my take on the National Gallery’s history and collection will persuade more black people to visit the gallery. Perhaps the biggest challenge is letting people know that these days, the National Gallery is not just run for white, middle-class people and tourists. We all know that history should be inclusive and not just the story of the usual suspects: royalty, the church, government, war. It should cover a diverse range of voices and positions. What’s more, these stories surround us. There is a fuller, more rounded history to be found in places such as the National Gallery and we don’t have to dig that deep to find it.