Monday, 26 September 2016

Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948

The National Portrait Gallery is currently showing a small exhibition, Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948, the end date marking the Windrush’s arrival.  The black, and Asian, presence in Britain is underrepresented in the early photographic record and the studio portraits shown here indicate the diversity of the black experience, and the significant contributions black and Asian men and women made to British culture, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Cartesdevisite and cabinet cards have been drawn from the NPG’s own collections, supplemented by large modern bromide prints taken from glass plates in the Hulton Archive.  They show people active in numerous walks of life.  There are actors, dancers (Les Ballet Nègres, the first black ballet troupe), composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (‘The African Mahler’), musicians, boxer Peter Jackson (‘The Black Prince’), a missionary, soldiers, and diplomats.  Ram Gopal, an early exponent of Indian dance in England, has a case to himself.

A significant portion is dedicated to portraits of members of the African Choir, a 16-strong group which toured Britain in 1891-3, including a performance before Queen Victoria at Osborne House.  They were photographed by the (original) London Stereoscopic Company, and it would have been even more interesting to have seen these as originally intended – perhaps stereoscopy aficionado Sir Brian May will take note for a future publication in his series devoted to bringing vintage stereograms to a modern audience.  The African Choir negatives were only rediscovered in the Hulton Archive in 2014, which suggests they were not considered to have much commercial potential in the past.

An album contains a number of photographs of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a Yoruba captured, aged 5, by King Gezo of Dahomy (curiously black and Arab slavers tend to be omitted from the historical narrative in favour of an emphasis on the European-African-American triangle) but a British naval officer, Captain Forbes, persuaded the king to offer the girl to Queen Victoria as a gift: her surname was derived from the name of Forbes’s ship.  She became a society figure in England after the Queen paid for her education and became her godmother. At the other end of the social scale, Ndugu M’Hali, known as Kalulu, was servant to Henry Morton Stanley on his expeditions and the inspiration for his 1873 book My Kalulu, Prince, King and Slave: A Story of Central Africa.  He was given to Stanley by an Arab merchant, and Stanley paid for his education.

A series by Benjamin Stone records visitors to the House of Commons: a sergeant and three privates of the King’s African Rifles, a delegation of Basuto chiefs, South Nigerian Regiment ‘gun carriers’.  Various individuals connected with the Raj are depicted, from Duleep Singh, Maharaja of Lahore, the last Sikh ruler of the Punjab who was exiled to England, to Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian Westminster Member of Parliament.  Demonstrating Africa’s exoticism in British eyes, in 1905 half a dozen pygmies were brought to England and performed to large audiences for two years.  They were photographed by Stone during a visit to the Commons.

There is much to think about in the exhibition, even though it is a small slice of what could have been shown.  Mounted by the NPG in collaboration with Autograph ABP, an arts charity, it constitutes part of a three-year archival research programme, The Missing Chapter, supported financially by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  The Missing Chapter’s goal is to ‘to augment the photographic narratives of migration and cultural diversity in relation to Britain’s past, and disseminate a visual heritage that is fragmented and dislocated.’  This is a laudable aim, if inelegantly put, and Black Chronicles fulfils it well.  My only criticism is that spreading the content over several rooms dissipates its impact.  The main section, in its own space, has a powerful effect, with large prints imposingly presented on black-painted walls; but the other elements are just a couple of cases sited in general galleries, and are fiddly to find.  It feels like a loss of confidence by the gallery’s management.

Black Chronicles runs 18 May - 11 December 2016.  A conference accompanies it, The Missing Chapter: Cultural Identities and The Photographic Archive, at the NPG on 21 October 2016, marking the culmination of The Missing Chapter project.