For this year’s Black History Month we have invited the next generation of creatives, thinkers and cultural leaders to reflect on the sitters in our Collection. We'll be sharing new content here throughout October.
Alayo Akinkugbe, art historian and founder of @ablackhistoryofart, explores key figures from the Gallery’s Collection.
by Walter Wallis, 1881, NPG x5724
Here is a portrait of the internationally acclaimed classical composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Coleridge-Taylor was born in Croydon to an English mother and a Sierra Leonian father in 1875, and the portrait was made when he was aged around seven by an artist at the Croydon Art Club. The young Coleridge-Taylor’s head is turned to the right so that we view the left side of his face more clearly; he appears charmingly earnest and innocent, and his cropped afro curls are topped with a white hat that is perhaps intended to look “exotic” or evoke something that seemed foreign to the 19th century viewer. The portrait was purchased by Coleridge-Taylor’s family, who nurtured his musical abilities in childhood by arranging violin lessons and encouraging him to study at the Royal College of Music, which he did from age 15 – setting the stage for a successful career in the UK and abroad. Coleridge-Taylor called himself an Anglo-African, fighting against racial prejudice his whole life, and being a supporter of the Pan African Movement until his death in 1912. Proud of his Sierra Leonian heritage and black identity, he often synthesised traditionally black music with concert music, for instance in his “African Suite” and “African Romances” and the inclusion of a quote from the African-American spiritual “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” in an overture for his most famous work “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast”. In this portrait, Coleridge-Taylor is a child unaware of the accolades he would receive in his short but very prosperous life.
Zadie Smith (by Toyin Ojih Odutola)
by Toyin Ojih Odutola, 2018-2019, NPG 7105
In this portrait “Sadie”, artist Toyin Ojih Odutola depicts the writer, Zadie Smith, sitting on a chair with her arms folded, her left foot balanced on her right knee and her head cocked to the side while gazing at the viewer with a kind of warm familiarity. Smith appears heroic, with a red cape draped over her shoulders, yellow-gold shoes and a dark crown of afro curls, universally recognised as a celebration of black identity. Smith has mentioned that her afro hairstyle here is the first of its kind on a painted portrait of a woman in the National Portrait Gallery. In the background on the left-hand side of the painting, a shadow of a palm tree can be seen on the blue wall which makes reference to Smith’s mother’s homeland, Jamaica, while a map of North West London dominates the rest of the wall – a reference to Smith’s home growing up. The black figures in Ojih Odutola’s paintings are elegant and dignified, the focus is not on the political statement of being black, but on the figures themselves as individuals.
by Sal Idriss, 2003, NPG x126108
This is a magnificent portrait of renowned Malian photographer, Malick Sidibé, taken in 2003 when he was around 68. In the image, Sidibé wears traditional Malian clothing in blue, corresponding with the powdery blue wall behind him, and he smiles warmly at the camera with his left eye gazing directly at us, and his right eye slightly averted – evidence of his blindness in that eye from childhood. The sitter began his career as a photographer in 1956 apprenticing with Gerard Guillat, a French photographer in Bamako, Mali. Sidibé bought his first camera that year, and began making portraits, photographing private events and capturing nightlife in independence-era Bamako. His photographs of dancing figures, or figures generally at leisure, evoke the buzzing energy of freedom from colonial rule; an example of this is the sitter’s most famous work “Nuit de Noël” (1963) that shows two figures dancing, one barefoot, underneath a night sky. Sidibé gained international acclaim for his photography in the 1990s and became the first artist from an African country to receive a Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale, in 2007. In this portrait, Sidibé’s linked hands and beaming smile evoke a warm and wise character.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta
by Camille Silvy, 1862, NPG Ax61384
Sarah Forbes Bonetta, born Omoba Aina in 1843, was a princess in Yorubaland, Southwest Nigeria, captured during a slave-hunt war with a Dahomeyan army that killed her parents. At age 5, she was kept as a slave in the kingdom of Ghezo of Dahomey but was taken by the British naval officer, Captain Frederick Forbes, to England after he had convinced Ghezo of Dahomey to send her as a “gift” to Queen Victoria. On the ship to England, Omoba Aina was baptised “Sarah”, and given both Forbes’ name and the name of the ship “HMS Bonetta” – an erasure of her Yoruba identity. Queen Victoria became the godmother of the young girl, whom she nicknamed “Sally”, and funded her education and welfare. This portrait was taken in 1862, about a month after Sarah had married the Nigerian widower, Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies. She sits, posing in Victorian clothing, with her gaze directly at the camera, and her hands lightly clutching a fan. After her wedding, Sarah moved back to her native Nigeria with her husband, settling in Lagos to start a family; they named their first child Victoria after the Queen, who accepted the child, too, as a goddaughter.
by Sal Idriss, 2004, NPG x126372
This black and white portrait of Cuban ballet dancer, Carlos Acosta, was taken in 2004 by Ghanaian-British photographer Sal Idriss. Acosta appears gazing to his left, the beginnings of a smile evident in his face; the setting is a white-walled studio with a ballet barre distinguishable in the background. Acosta was the first black principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, which he joined in 1998, having been the English National Ballet’s youngest ever principal dancer at age 18 around seven years before. Born as the eleventh child of a family in one of the poorest districts in Havana, Acosta started dancing from age 9 and trained at the National Ballet School of Cuba. He went on to dance with companies worldwide such as the Paris Opera, the Bolshoi Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre amongst others, and has been awarded numerous accolades including an Olivier in 2006 and a CBE for services to Ballet in 2014. A remarkable thing about this portrait is the quiet power of an athletic black male body occupying space in a ballet studio; a setting not typically associated with black figures in general.
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