Tuesday, April 21, 2015

the power of a portrait

One of the most arresting paintings I saw at the National Portrait Gallery in London was this one:

  Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, by William Hoare, 1733

It's the first British portrait of a Black African and a Muslim, and his story is fascinating: he was the son of a wealthy and educated family of Imams in Senegal, and he was on a slave trading mission for his father, when he himself was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He was enslaved on a tobacco plantation in Maryland for a year until he was caught attempting an escape, and while in custody, attracted the attention of an English lawyer who was impressed by his literacy (in Arabic) and religious devotion. 

The lawyer pulled some strings to have him bought out of slavery, and arranged his travel to England where he worked as a translator for the British Museum and gained a reputation of distinction amongst London's elite -- which is where this portrait was painted. After only about a year, he returned to Senegal, where -- rather unfortunately -- he resumed his own slave-trading endeavors, this time for the Royal African Company in England.

Despite this apparent conflict of interest -- or maybe even because of it... it's complicated, OK? -- this portrait came to symbolize changing attitudes about slavery in Europe in the 18th century. He was painted in a classic style, beautifully and respectfully rendered, and, rather than as a servant or an auxiliary character in the scene, as an individual and an equal. 

The way people are portrayed, whether in the current moment, or through the lens of history, matters. These lives matter.


Monday, April 13, 2015

portrait gallery

My folks came for a nice long visit over the Easter holiday, and to show them around and to celebrate Jason's birthday, we took a day trip to London -- where I selfishly promoted my own agenda of going to the National Portrait Gallery:

My dad (who is also an artist) and I were especially taken with the studies on display, where the ground of the canvas was exposed, and the garments only sketched in around the beautifully modeled head. It was such a marvelous trompe l'oeil, and made me see how truly bizarre it is to describe a three-dimensional image on a flat surface. 

I could have stayed there all day, marveling at the rich tones and impossible fabrics, and the fact that many of those subjects were gazing out at us from over three hundred years ago. Can you imagine? It's only paint, arranged on canvas, and yet the fact of that singular human is preserved through all that time, its skin still luminous, its presence still eerily close.