On Monday 20th February 2012, I attended a seminar at the University College of London’s Senate House entitled ‘Invisibility: The Art of Being Black’ which was delivered by David Neita and chaired by Marika Sherwood of the Black and Asian Studies Association.
The room that the Senate House had given David was somewhat inadequate as the number of people who attended exceeded the capacity of the room. It was clear by the way the room was laid out that the registrar underestimated the turnout to the event. However, this did not take anything away from the information that was shared on the night.
I have been on this journey a while and it was not a shock to me that the Black Presence in Western Art has been suppressed and that we are not described in the Art, even though our presence is clearly there. We have the tools readily available to us to reverse the invisibility and share this with the world.
David introduced us to two authors:
1. Ralph Ellison who wrote the Invisible Man in 1952
2. David Dabyden who wrote ‘Hogarth’s Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth Century English Art
‘Invisible Man’ is the story of a young, college-educated black man struggling to survive and succeed in a racially divided society that refuses to see him as a human being. Told in the form of a first-person narrative, Invisible Man traces the nameless narrator’s physical and psychological journey from blind ignorance to enlightened awareness — or, according to the author, “from Purpose to Passion to Perception” — through a series of flashbacks in the forms of dreams and memories. Set in the U.S. during the pre-Civil Rights era when segregation laws barred Black Americans from enjoying the same basic human rights as their white counterparts. The novel opens in the South (Greenwood, South Carolina), although the majority of the action takes place in the North (Harlem, New York).
Two quotes by Ralph Ellison below which summarises his feelings:
“I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.” – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
“Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.” ― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
David Dabydeen’s book examined William Hogarth’s (1697-1764) representations of black people in the 18th century. William Hogarth often included Black subjects in his satirical images of 18th-century life.
David guided us through a number of images that I was not aware of existed such as:
- Marriage A-la-Mode: 4, The Toilette by William Hogarth http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/william-hogarth-marriage-a-la-mode-4-the-toilette
- Olympia by Edouard Manet in 1863 http://jssgallery.org/other_artists/manet/Olympia.htm
- Henrietta of Lorraine by Van Dyck http://www.englishheritageprints.com/van_dyck_henrietta_of_lorraine_j920322/print/485957.html
- A Family Group in a Landscape by Francis Wheatly c1775 http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999961&workid=16112
David also explained that Black boys were used in images as a sign of wealth and the term used is known as pairing. Black boys were given as a gift by Europeans to show their wealth.
David ended his seminar by posing some questions of:
- What and who are we not noticing in life? What or who are we loosing by ignoring them?
- If we are in a position of invincibility, what are we doing about this?
In response to his question, I have written this blog and included links to some the images that I saw tonight. I have shared some of the quotes and made people aware via Twitter and Facebook about this event and the two authors highlighted. We can make a change and do something, no matter how small. Members of the audience spoke about getting the schools to teach Black History but I will also question why are we waiting for schools to teach our young people. We must take responsibility for their education and self development by visiting the galleries where these images are stored and also purchase the books and read them and share the information with our young people. Both books can be purchased online.