Black Cultural Archives (BCA) is the home of Black British history, having been created in the early 1980s as a space for members of the community to come and find positive representations of themselves in history and culture. This Black History Month, we invited the team behind BCA to look to our Collection and share with us the sitters who resonate with them and their work, and why these stories need to be in the spotlight.
Introduction by Arike Oke, Managing Director BCA
The National Portrait Gallery has a special importance: we can and are invited to look at the faces of the past and present. This interaction helps us humanise and connect to our shared historical predecessors. The past doesn’t seem so far when you can put a face to a name, or deed. These portraits also show us power: how it was coded into images, how it was wielded in iconography, how it shone spotlights, how it cast shadows.
For much of Britain’s history, shadows were cast over anything that diverged from the hero narrative of the might and moral rectitude of the British Empire. The heroes whose portraits were painted or photographed were usually the ethnically and visibly white power brokers of their times – the kings, queens, adventurers, missionaries, soldiers, colonisers and emissaries of cultural imperialism. They were in the spotlight and they were the ones made icons in portraiture. But there are many other stories of heroes in history. Often their images exist too, and have been collected in the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection.
BCA was created by a collective of parents, educators and activists so that there would be a place, where, in founder Len Garrison’s words, “important acts and achievements of the past which are now scattered and pushed into the margins of European history can be assembled; where those facts now presented as negative can be re-presented, from our point of view as positive factors in our liberation.”.
Black Cultural Archives staff were invited to select portraits from the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection to do just that. To move the spotlight across, bringing to the forefront stories of our African descent ancestors.
Queen Nzinga (1583 – 1663) - chosen by Arike Oke, Managing Director BCA
Queen Nzinga Mbande (Anna de Sousa Nzinga), by Achille Devéria, after Unknown artist, 1830s © National Portrait Gallery, London
This lithograph of Queen Nzinga intrigues me.
Nzinga Mbande was Queen of the Ambundu Kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba – today the land these kingdoms occupied is in northern Angola. This lithograph was created almost two hundred years after her death, for a volume of illustrations of ‘Illustrious Women’. This queen would have been in her twenties when England’s Queen Elizabeth I died. They probably knew of each other: Queen Nzinga spoke fluent Portuguese and was an ambassador for her people to Portugal, ahead of her time as Queen and before they became war adversaries.
She is pictured here in the visual language of the 1800s – almost as if she were a fairy queen and quite genteel. Although the artist may have used a human sitter for the portrait, it feels like more of the artist’s impression of Queen Nzinga rather than a portrait which truly captures this incredible figure from history, who was famous for her military strategy, and whom ordered that her male servants wore female clothing and addressed her as ‘King’.
Queen Nzinga was born into royalty. She was taught politics and military strategy from a young age. She sold people as slaves. She fought wars. She was a complex military leader and monarch. I would love for her story to be known as much as Queen Elizabeth I’s. They have so much in common. I dream of walking through the gallery at the National Portrait Gallery and seeing contemporaneous paintings of the two iconic Queens side by side. I’d like to see which marks of power Nzinga would have chosen for her portrait, the two queens mighty and merciless, playing their parts in creating the history of Europe and Africa.
Bernie Grant (1944 – 2000) - chosen by Arike Oke, Managing Director BCA
Bernie Grant, by Geoff Wilson, May 1987 © Geoff Wilson
This image of Bernie Grant is so full of joy. Wearing western clothes, Bernard Alexander Montgomery Grant, is completely at home in this photograph, looking up to the camera with the confidence and optimism that is his legacy. Bernie Grant was a member of what would eventually be called the ‘Windrush Generation’. He was born in what was British Guyana, now Guyana, and moved to London with his parents when he was a teenager.
Bernie stood up for his values, and for the rights of others. Alongside campaigning for reparations to be made to the victims and descendants of the victims of the British trade in enslaved Africans (rather than compensation paid to former owners of enslaved people, which is what was agreed by the government at the time of abolition), Bernie also battled contemporary discrimination. This was particularly the case in his North London home, where he became leader of Haringey council, and later an MP for Tottenham.
Despite being labelled ‘Barmy Bernie’ by the press, having to navigate the brutal world of politics and the bruising tides of racism, Bernie was an optimistic leader. This portrait captures his sense of looking to the future with humour and compassion, always.
Grace Nichols (1950 - ) - chosen by Rhoda Boateng, Collections Assistant
Grace Nichols, by Maud Sulter, 2001© National Portrait Gallery, London
The portrait I have chosen is of the Guyanese poet and novelist Grace Nichols, who has lived and worked in Britain since the late seventies, and who won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1983. This portrait was taken by Maud Sulter (1960–2008) who was an artist, educator and writer, of Scottish and Ghanaian heritage.
It felt right to choose a portrait where both the ‘model’ and the photographer are ‘icons’, both of which have such a vital and still often overlooked role in changing and enrichening the landscape of Black Arts in the UK. The portrait was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery as part of a series documenting children’s writers, but for me the image resonates as a record of the wider practice of history making by Black female artists in the UK, characterised by entangled creative kinship and self-produced archival practices which are not only reparative but urgent, joyful and sensuous.
Maud’s entire body of work is a testament to breaking open the canon, working with colleagues, lovers and friends in a rich network, recentring the lives and histories of Black women through portraiture, exhibition-making, writing and curation initiatives, underpinned by her statement ‘she who writes her story rewrites history’.
This enchantment with historical and social possibilities is also seen throughout Grace Nichols’ poetry, whether in her first collection, ‘I Is a Long-Memoried Woman’ a chronicle of the experiences of enslaved Black women, or in ‘The Fat Black Woman’s Poems’ (1984), containing the ever-unforgettable stanza:
is a fat black woman
walking the fields
pressing a breezed
to her cheek
while the sun lights up
– Grace Nichols
Which immediately, like in the work of Maud’s most memorable portraiture series ‘Zabat’ (picturing Black women as the nine Greek muses.)’, upends the possibilities of Black women’s relation to beauty, value and cultural memory.
In the preface to the anthology Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity (1990), Maud Sulter writes: ‘We must break the cycle of reinventing the wheel. […] It is painful to see the ignorance of which exhibitions, publications, meetings etc. have happened. Painful to recognise the fact that so much remains unread and unlooked at. More painful the seemingly perverse pleasure taken in the suicidal belief that one is the only one, the first one, the one.’
Written over thirty years ago, it still resonates.
Both Grace Nichols and Maud Sulter’s work firmly recentre Black women’s historical narratives and therefore, I think, have a transformative bearing on how we can configure the archive. An engagement with both of their work has animated the archive in my thinking as a sight of creative possibility.
In this portrait Grace is confident and self-assured, she wears half a wry-smile and stares directly at camera. We can only imagine Maud.
Mary Jane Seacole (1805 – 1881) - chosen by Dawn Hill CBE SRN, Trustee, Former Chair Black Cultural Archives and President of the Mary Seacole Trust
Mary Seacole, by Albert Charles Challen, 1869 © National Portrait Gallery, London
This wonderful portrait of Mary Seacole with her medals is a significant statement recognising the role she played in the Crimean War to nurse British soldiers and provide them with a place of rest and recuperation.
Mary experienced rejection, but would not be deterred, when she was not accepted to join Florence Nightingale’s nurses going out to the war hospital in Turkey. Her book Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857), tells of her experience as a nurse, business woman and work treating cholera in Panama and yellow fever in Jamaica.
Mary Seacole was wiped from our history for 150 years, but since the recovery of her grave in 1970, she has been brought back into recognition.
I am proud to salute the iconic position Mary Seacole now rightly commands in British History. She is included in the school curriculum, in the book 100 Pioneering Women, was nominated as the Greatest Black Britain in 2004 and most fittingly her statue, erected in 2016 at St Thomas’ Hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament, is that of the first named black woman in the UK. Martin Jennings, Sculptor said “Mary Seacole was treated as if she did not belong. She has now come to belong to us all”.
Mary Seacole’s legacy is now in the hands of The Mary Seacole Trust, who champion Leadership, Equality and Diversity and are a voice for positive change, to educate and inform the public about the life, work and achievements of Mary Seacole, ensuring she will never be forgotten again and be lost to history.
2021 is the Year of the Nurse. Featuring Mary Seacole is very timely as we remember the many Jamaican and other Caribbean country women who answered the call to come to England to be nurses before the NHS started and to staff the NHS. They have been in the frontline together with Doctors and essential hospital support staff throughout the Covid pandemic. Their dedicated service to the NHS has to be given far more recognition and reward.
Visit the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton and find out more about their current exhibition programme.