Written by Scarlett Butler
Image: Lubaina Himid, Naming the Money (2004), https://www.historytoday.com/ella-s-mills/lubaina-himid-naming-un-named, accessed 21 October 2018.
As Black History Month draws to a close, I am sure that many people are considering that phrase, ‘Black History Month’. Torn between the necessity of raising awareness of histories of the African-diaspora, and the discomfort that all we can do is one poultry and discrete month. I will argue that ‘Black History’ is not separable from any other form of history, and that the contributions of the black African diaspora in Europe are much older and more complex than is often presented. Here, I will discuss the presence of the free black African in the Renaissance period when the West African slave trade was expanding significantly.
The major story that Europe tells itself about western art is located in the ‘Renaissance’. It signals a series of giant leaps. One forwards into the great chain of artistic movements that would follow, and one backwards into the painted surface, given the emergence of realistic linear perspective. Before the Renaissance you can picture a medieval daub: flattened bodies, squashed faces, baby-Jesuses that look like 40-year-old divorcees. Here it is relevant to note that the height of the Renaissance around the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries coincided with the major expansion of the West African slave trade by Portuguese forces, often funded by Italian cash. The increased presence of black Africans in Western Europe, Italy and particularly the city of Venice was noted in the artwork of the time. Patrizia Battella further emphasises the significance of the convergence of the growing African slave trade with a significant period of elite white European self-definition, where the image of ‘blackness’ was often used as a foil to the positive qualities of supposedly civilised ‘whiteness’.
Although, as with every named historical period our concept of the Renaissance, its dates, and its very existence have been significantly questioned by revisionist historians. The Renaissance has been shattered into numerous fragments under the weight of postmodernist critique of overarching historical narratives. Here I would like to draw attention to one very notable shard; those images of black Africans without the distinctive markings of slavery, in particular the black African king who is displayed attending the birth of Christ and the black gondolier punters in Renaissance Venice.
In the medieval and early modern period, the King, or wise man, usually named Balthazar displayed a free and elite black African man in figurative art. This figure appears broadly across Western art, including in the Northern Renaissance. Sometimes he is shown with very dark skin, other times he is marked with a turban. This looseness of representation partly comes from the vague descriptive term ‘Moor’, the term used to describe this king and generally meaning African Muslim. Balthazar provides the final gift to Christ and tends to stand furthest from the Christ child. Many British school children are further informed of the gift the black African king brought, myrrh, in the hymn ‘We Three Kings’ written in 1857 by John H. Hopkins. One particular verse of this song is sung fearfully by school children around Britain without realising that it is specifically referencing Balthazar, who brought a gift of myrrh, symbolic of Christ’s future death. His verse demands to be read, if not sung in full to communicate it is particularly conspicuously sombre tone in an otherwise jolly song:
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom; / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, / Sealed in the stone cold tomb.”
This example is used to note the subtle – or not-so-subtle – coding with which these characters continue to display. Not all depictions of Balthazar and his message are so grim, however, the black African Christian convert is widely recognised as a key part of the Catholic church’s missionary aims on the African continent. The later convergence of Christian evangelism and brutal imperialism further complicates the legacy of such images.
Whilst the harrowing legacy of the slave trade ought to be more widely known, it is also important not to presume that all black Africans depicted in Renaissance art are slaves. These black gondoliers are ambiguous figures in the sense that we cannot be sure of their legal status. However, presuming their enslavement might be to repeat the totalising logic of the Renaissance European culture which repeatedly imagined – as Kate Lowe argues – that “all black Africans in Europe” were slaves, and that “by extension were only fit to be slaves.”
In this context, an image of a fashionably dressed, skilled and strong black African is certainly a relief from the chain of anonymous slave attendants, or pages, treated like ornaments and pets by elite Europeans. One such version of the free black African in the Renaissance is depicted in two paintings by Vittore Carpaccio, Hunting on the Lagoon, (1490-95) and Miracle of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto, (c.1496). These works feature stylishly dressed black African gondoliers in their depictions of late-fifteenth century Venice. Paul H. D. Kaplan notes that it was sometimes the custom for freed slaves to be given a gondola to provide a form of employment once they were released from service. This role is also mentioned in Marino Sanuto’s Guidebook to Venice (1493), which states that thousands of the city’s gondolas were propelled “by black Saracens, or by others who know how to row.” Kaplan also emphasises that black Africans were specifically meant to be very talented rowers and swimmers, which was recorded as fact by the Venetian aristocrat and traveller Alvise Ca’ da Mosto after his travels to what is now Gambia and Senegal. This might also help to explain the presence of a black African man about to jump into the lagoon water in the bottom right of Gentile Bellini’s painting Miracle at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, (1500).
This image of black Africans is still a product of an elite European male artist and the same was likely true of the buyer. Kate Lowe in particular emphasises the dangers of stereotyping which always bundles together a huge variety of people into one group. Even stereotypes which can initially seem positive function to further dehumanise that group. It is often difficult to untangle the mixture of negative and positive stereotypes that will always be linked together in their meaning and consequences. Often seemingly positive qualities described in African peoples, their athleticism or musical skills, were further utilised as signs of their ‘savage’ nature and their difference from civilised European nature. This process was at work in the Venice pictured by Gentile Bellini in his painting Miracle at the Bridge of San Lorenzo. In the foreground we see a black African man preparing to dive into the lagoon waters. This links to the stereotype of the strong swimmer and athletic African man. However, as Kaplan emphasises, the wooden Rialto bridge behind this figure was used in a ceremony enacted following the 1489 fugitive law in Venice which enshrined the punishment of slaves into law and immunity for anyone who killed a fugitive slave. The ceremony included the branding and beating of slaves who were “forced to run from Piazza San Marco to [the] Rialto” bridge, “as an example to the others.” It fuels the question – what would an Afro-Venetian of the period see in that picture? The modern connection between the white stereotyping of black individuals as athletic, strong and beautiful, and the deeply held racist assumptions about non-white people is laid out in a nuanced and chilling way in the recent horror film Get Out (2017), which I would highly recommend.
Some may have recognised a hypocrisy even in this well-meaning article with the use of the term ‘black African’. This term is patently too broad to even begin to cover the various experiences it is attempting to convey. As Rosalind Delmar stated about the word ‘woman’, the term is simply “too fragile to bear the weight of all the contents and meanings now ascribed to it.” One contemporary artist who is specifically grappling with historical depictions of the African diaspora in Western art is Lubaina Himid. Himid’s piece Naming the Money was first displayed in 2004 and was awarded the 2017 Turner Prize, a prestigious contemporary art award. This piece displays one hundred life-sized, beautifully illuminated, cut-out figures. Every person has a name and information about their life and their work. Each figure becomes humanised, individualised and works to counteract stereotypes of all kinds. Himid has said of her work in general that: “I need to do it because there are stories that need to be told. There are stories that aren’t being told. There are gaps in history that aren’t being filled.”
This approach is surely the right response. A response that goes beyond the broader narratives about the African diaspora to ensure history does not continue to dehumanise people whose role in society is so rich and entangled with the rest of the world. Himid asks “How to tell the story of the slave trade without depicting bleeding dying Africans?”, and her work answers.
- Battella, Patrizia. “The Marked Body as Otherness in Renaissance Italian Culture.” In A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Renaissance, edited by Linda Kalof and William Bynum, 149-181. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.
- History Today. “Lubaina Himid: Naming the Un-named.” Last modified December 4, 2017. https://www.historytoday.com/ella-s-mills/lubaina-himid-naming-un-named.
- Kaplan Paul H. D.. “Italy, 1490-1700.” In The Image of the Black in Western Art, vol 3, From the “Age of Discovery” to the Age of Abolition, pt. 1, Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, edited by David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, 93-191. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
- Kaplan, Paul H. D. “Isabella d’Este and black African women.” In Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, edited by T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe, 125-154. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Lowe, Kate. “The Stereotyping of black Africans in Renaissance Europe.” In Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, edited by T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe, 17-47. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- McKee, Sally. “Domestic Slavery in Renaissance Italy.” Slavery and Abolition 29, no. 3 (2008): 305-326.
- Noakes, Lucy. “British National Identity, Gender and the Second World War: An Introduction.” In War and the British: Gender, Memory and the National Identity, 1-22. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998.
- Modern Oxford Art. “Re-Visit: Navigating Invisible Strategies – The Art of Lubaina Himid.” Last modified March 29, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wa3f7_II-FA.
- Spike Island. “Lubaina Himid | ‘Naming the Money’ at Spike Island.” Accessed October 20, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3I3baXYsz0.
- Hull2017. “Lubaina Himid: Turner Prize 2017.” Accessed October 18, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=26&v=PKiN2FHqYFU.
- Himid, Lubaina. “Naming the Money.” Accessed October 19, 2018. http://lubainahimid.uk/portfolio/naming-the-money/.
- Hopkins, John H. We Three Kings. Williamsport, PA: John H. Hopkins, 1857. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_Three_Kings.