Thursday, September 25, 2014

The First Ever Portrait Photography of Black People in Britain

Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe of the African Choir, 1891. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The African Choir were a group of young South African singers that toured Britain between 1891 and 1893. They were formed to raise funds for a Christian school in their home country and performed for Queen Victoria at Osborne House, a royal residence on the Isle of Wight. At some point during their stay, they visited the studio of the London Stereoscopic Company to have group and individual portraits made on plate-glass negatives. That long-lost series of photographs, unseen for 120 years, is the dramatic centrepiece of an illuminating new exhibition called Black Chronicles II.

“The portraits were last shown in the London Illustrated News in 1891,” says Renée Mussai, who has co-curated the show at London’s Rivington Place alongside Mark Sealy MBE, director of Autograph ABP, a foundation that focuses on black cultural identity often through the use of overlooked archives. “The Hulton Archive, where they came from, did not even know they existed until we uncovered them while excavating their archive as part of our research project.”

Many of the images on display have very recently been unearthed as part of our current archive research programme, The Missing Chapter - a three-year project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This is the second exhibition in a series dedicated to excavating archives, which began with ‘The Black Chronicles’ in 2011.

Discovered … Member of the African Choir, London Stereoscopic Company, 1891. Photograph: Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A member of the African Choir, who all had portraits taken at the London Stereoscopic Company in 1891. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ohanna Jonkers of the African Choir, 1891. Photograph: Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Eleanor Xiniwe of the African Choir, 1891. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Peter Jackson, 2 December 1889. Born in 1860 in St Croix, then the Danish West Indies, Jackson was a boxing champion who spent long periods of time touring Europe. In England, he staged the famous fight against Jem Smith at the Pelican Club in 1889. In 1888 he claimed the title of Australian heavyweight champion. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Major Musa Bhai, 3 November 1890. Musa Bhai travelled to England in 1888 as part of the Booth family, who founded the Salvation Army. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the stereoscopic photographs of the African Choir, 1891. Photograph: Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Black Chronicles II is a public showcase of Autograph ABP’s 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. For the first time acomprehensive body of portraits depicting black people prior to the beginning of the second world war are brought together in this exhibition - identified through original research carried out in the holdings of national public archives and by examining privately owned collections. This research also coincides with Autograph ABP’s continuous search for the earliest photographic image of a black person created in the UK.

All of the photographs in the exhibition were taken in photographic studios in Britain prior to 1938, with a majority during the latter half of the 19th century. Alongside numerous portraits of unidentified sitters, the exhibition includes original prints of known personalities, such as Sarah Forbes Bonetta, goddaughter to Queen Victoria; Prince Alemayehu, photographed by renowned photographer Julia Margaret Cameron; or Kalulu, African ‘boy servant’ (companion) to the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

Advert for the Lion Troupe of Ashante Warriors, the Wonders of the World, c1890. Photograph: Courtesy of Michael Graham Stewart collection.

This man was brought to Britain with a Zulu troupe during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and was part of explorer Guillermo Antonio Farini’s exhibition of ‘Friendly Zulus’ in London, 1879. Photograph: Courtesy of Michael Graham Stewart collection.

(Autograph ABP - Black Chronicles II, via The Guardian)

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