Exploring Britain’s Black Victorians at Harvard’s Cooper Gallery
By Monique Burns
With the U.S. premiere of “Black Chronicles II,” Americans get a rare and intriguing glimpse into the lives of blacks in Victorian England. At Harvard University’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, September 2-December 11, the show of more than 100 black-and-white photographs is both beautiful and arresting. From the era’s popular snapshot-size cartes-de-visite to large-scale reproductions from original glass negatives, the photographs depict exiled African royalty, soldiers, missionaries, businessmen, even boxers and a circus performer. The highlight: 30 stunning poster-size portraits of The African Choir, which toured Great Britain between 1891 and 1893. Wrapped in brown paper and string, they lay buried in the archives for 125 years and were only recently unearthed.
The exhibit debuted in London in fall 2014 at Rivington Place, headquarters of Autograph ABP, a non-profit group exploring race, identity and human rights in photography and film. As part of its ongoing project, “The Missing Chapter: Cultural Identity and the Photographic Archive,” Autograph ABP gathered these photos from Getty Images’ venerable Hulton Archive as well as from private collections.
On this side of the Atlantic, Harvard’s Cooper Gallery is the perfect venue for the premiere of “Black Chronicles II,” which proceeds to the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta, Georgia, in January. Under the aegis of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, The Cooper Gallery’s African roots run deep. Opened in November 2014, the gallery was the gift of Ethelbert Cooper, a Liberian philanthropist, entrepreneur, and founder of Afren plc, a gas and oil exploration and production company. Architect David Adjaye—who also designed Rivington Place in London and the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo—hails from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and has family roots in Ghana.
The Cooper Gallery’s intimacy also makes it an excellent venue for “Black Chronicles II.” In the heart of bustling Harvard Square, a few blocks from a major “T” subway station, the single-story building is wedged between the quaint pale-green wood-frame building of Peet’s Coffee & Tea and the Hutchins Center’s collegiate red-brick façade. You might think the gallery was a residence, were it not for the glass facade graced by tall cedar pillars—architect Adjaye’s nod to the Ghanaian forest of his ancestors.
Inside, the 2,300 square feet of exhibition space is divided into eight areas named for their physical characteristics—from the Ramp Room and Tall Room at one end to the Niche Room and Long Room at the other. These intimate spaces are perfect for sharing cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards, which Victorians originally shared at home with family and friends. That the black Victorians, brought blinking into the light of our present day, should be embraced in an intimate gallery focusing on black concerns seems only proper. That Harvard University should shelter these historically and artistically valuable works under its powerful wing is equally fitting.
The first image visitors see, beneath the exhibition title, is of Peter Jackson, a handsome black Victorian boxer in a top hat (top). To the right, in the gallery’s reading room, Executive Director Vera I. Grant and her staff have laid out such books as Exhibiting Blackness, and The Image of the Black in Western Art, co-authored by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Hutchins Center director and host of the popular PBS-TV show, Finding Your Roots. There is, as yet, no show catalog for “Black Chronicles II,” so these works help provide context to the exhibit. Just beyond, in a lengthy, but compelling, introduction, printed in dramatic white letters on a black wall, the show’s British curators Renée Mussai, Autograph ABP Curator, and Matthew Butson, Vice President of Hulton Archive, set out the show’s premise: to open up “critical enquiry into archive images that have been overlooked [and] under-researched.”
Leading up to the other seven galleries, The Cooper Gallery’s first exhibit space is the Ramp Gallery. On a black wall, in white lettering, are quotes from a 2008 speech on archives and cultural memory given by Professor Stuart Hall, the late Autograph ABP chairman to whom the show is dedicated. Text from the speech, along with recorded excerpts, is interspersed throughout the show. On the Ramp Gallery’s facing wall, some of the show’s most distinguished black Victorians are depicted in cartes-de-visite (2 x 3-inch albumen prints mounted on stiff card stock) and somewhat larger 4 x 5-inch cabinet cards. There’s pretty, petite Sarah Forbes Bonetta, her black face peeking above the prim collar of a hoop-skirted Victorian dress. A former Yoruba princess captured by another African tribe, she was rescued by a British naval captain and brought to England, where she became a “goddaughter” of Queen Victoria.
Beside her is a small portrait of Dejaz Alamieo, the young Ethiopian prince brought to England by British explorer Captain Tristram Speedy after his father, Emperor Tewodros II, committed suicide following his defeat by the British at the Battle of Magdala in 1868. Queen Victoria, who took an active interest in the boy, wrote that Alamieo seemed unhappy because he was far from home and conscious of people staring at him because of his color. Certainly, there’s no mistaking the sadness in the orphan’s eyes though he sits, dressed in royal regalia, atop a veritable throne of pillows. By age 18, Alamieo had died of pleurisy—and was buried at Windsor Castle.
Also in the Ramp Gallery is a photo of Dhuleep Singh, the Sikh Empire’s last maharaja, brought to England at age 15 after the British defeated his father, the so-called “Lion of Punjab.” The inclusion of Indians in this exhibit might seem incongruous, but it really isn’t. In Victorian England, the concept of “blackness” included Indians and other people of color—not just Africans. Indeed, Singh was known as “The Black Prince of Perthshire.”
Throughout the exhibit, there’s a sense of two cultures colliding, providing an intriguing if discomfiting artistic tension. The images in “Black Chronicles II” are fraught with meaning, and viewers of all colors will likely be deeply touched by them—viscerally, psychologically and/or intellectually.
At the top of the ramp, in the Tall Gallery, are photos of the famous boy-servant Kalulu. In two small studio shots, a bare-chested Kalulu poses against a fake African landscape with his master, Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the great white explorer sent to Africa to find Dr. Livingstone. Two large-scale photos show a bare-chested Kalulu, while two others depict him in a Victorian three-piece suit. Kalulu’s sad-eyed likeness contrasts starkly with the nearby image of two other boys, Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe, members of The African Choir, shown playfully using a Victorian-style bellows camera.
In the Low Gallery opposite, a large-scale triptych of heavyweight boxer Peter Jackson, in top hat, tails and Persian lamb-trimmed coat, seems to burst the room’s very seams. Born on St. Croix in what was then the Danish West Indies and is now the U.S. Virgin Islands, Jackson, the epitome of black strength and pride, became known as “Peter the Great” and the “Black Prince.” His three photos hang opposite an advertisement for “Farini’s Friendly Zulus, the Lion Troupe of Ashantee Warriors,” and a photo of a Zulu in native dress with a shield and spears. Who is the mightiest warrior—Jackson in the trappings of the successful Victorian gentleman, or the Zulu whose native costume, when seen beside the ad for a circus-like London show, seems almost tawdry? Again, “Black Chronicles II” offers yet another thought-provoking question.
The Low Gallery leads into the Corridor Gallery—a hallway lined with cartes-de-visite of black Victorians, some in occupational garb, like animal trainer Sargano Alicamousa in a tiger skin-trimmed jacket covered with medals. The Corridor Gallery has the highest concentration of photos depicting black and white Victorians together. Which raises another question: How did black and white Victorians interact with one another? Again, there are no easy answers.
A flyer for the Congo House Training Institute in Colwyn Bay, North Wales, showing a white minister with two black students, notes the boys’ African names, Kinkasa and Nkanza, and their English names, Frank and Daniel. A photo depicts two white military officers seated while a young black boy, perhaps a servant, hovers over them. In another photo, a white couple and a white maid stand above a comfortably seated (and smiling) black man whose fancy dress suggests the attire of both a manservant and a gentleman. Two young men in stylish Victorian dress, a handsome white man with his elbow casually draped on the shoulder of a handsome black man, could be friends, fellow employees, classmates, even lovers. Then there’s the photo of four lively working-class swells, one black man and three white—friends, perhaps, dressed in cheap finery for a night on the town.
At the end of the Corridor Gallery are four formal photos of the 16-member African Choir, flanked by their two white managers. Next door, in the foyer-like Niche Gallery, are the first five large-scale portraits of the men and women of The African Choir. Reproduced from original glass negatives of their time, using technical methods of our day, the black and white tones are exquisitely rendered, even painterly. The two boys, Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe, seen earlier with the bellows camera, pose like the two cherubs in Raphael’s famed 16th-century painting, the “Sistine Madonna.” In contrast, the two simply dressed women—each represented by two portraits—could be modern-day women. There’s a timelessness to these photos, a sense of a connection running through the ages.
Finally, you step into The Cooper’s crowning glory—the Long Gallery—and the exhibit’s climax. Ranged around the four walls are 22 stunning large-scale photographs of 11 African Choir members. There are two portraits for each of the male and female choristers. Two black benches in the center of the room invite you to sit a spell. Take in the photographs’ splendor. Take in the physical beauty of long-ago men and women who look not unlike people of our day. Take in the words of Professor Stuart Hall, ringing the walls like an embrace: “This project wants to bring back into memory and representation history—the forgotten, the ignored, the disavowed….”
For the black men, women and children of the Victorian era, “Black Chronicles II” does just that. But the exhibit also brings to life questions of race and culture that we in the Western World wrestle with, again and again, in our quest for wholeness. Come to “Black Chronicles II” to see the dazzling beauty of these photographs. Come to better understand Victorian history. But come, too, to explore the questions these photos raise and to perhaps come more fully to grips with the answers.
IF YOU GO
“Black Chronicles II” premieres September 2-December 11 at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art. Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Harvard University holidays. Admission is free. Address: 102 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-496-5777. www.coopergalleryhc.org.
From January 28-May 14 2015, “Black Chronicles II” will be displayed at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. Open Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m-4 p.m., Saturday noon-4 p.m. Closed holidays, summers and college breaks. Address: Camille Cosby Academic Center, 350 Spelman Ln, Atlanta, GA 30314; 404-270-5607. http://museum.spelman.edu.