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Life before Windrush

Eleanor Xiniwe, of the African Choir, by the London Stereoscopic Company 1891 ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images

AN EXHIBITION dedicated to telling the story of Britain’s ethnic minorities before the Windrush has been unveiled at the prestigious National Portrait Gallery.

Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948 will bring together some of the earliest photographs of black and Asian sitters in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection in partnership with Autograph ABP.

They will be exhibited alongside recently discovered images from the Hulton Archive, a division of Getty Images.

The display of over 40 photographs will highlight an important and complex black presence in Britain before 1948, a watershed moment when the Empire Windrush brought the first group of Caribbean migrants to Great Britain.


Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies), by Camille Silvy, 1862 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Renée Mussai, Curator and Head of Archive at Autograph ABP, told The Voice: “It’s important to recognise that cultural diversity is not a 20th century phenomena, not only in order to acknowledge the many different contributions that black people have made to society, but also to link these presences to the expansion of the British Empire, and colonial history.

“Our mission is to gently disrupt this national narrative of migration and settlement dominated by the arrival of the Empire Windrush, through the prism of photography.”

The writer and art historian added: “It’s empowering for people to see such a diversity of experiences. To some it offers a ‘sense of place’ and existence, a historical presence to relate to, and in the process it creates a more inclusive and wider cultural narrative.”

STORIES

The exhibition features individuals with extraordinary stories, from performers to dignitaries, politicians and musicians, alongside unidentified sitters. It aims to reveal the diversity of representation within 19th and 20th century photography and British society, often absent from historical narratives of the period.

The demands of bringing together an exhibition in such depth is no simple task as Mussai explained.

“Locating images and constructing detailed narratives is challenging primarily because this particular aspect of photographic history in Britain is so under-researched, and some of the collections we accessed are vast. The Hulton Archive holds over 80 million photographic records alone so to extract relevant photographs requires much research time, expertise and dedication over the past few years.”


Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe of the African Choir, by the London Stereoscopic Company 1891 © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While the collection features displays from the National Portrait Gallery’s own exhibition it also draws on new acquisitions, including portraits by Angus McBean of Les Ballets Negre, the first all-black ballet troupe.

Formed by Jamaican Richie Riley and Berto Pasuka in London, Les Ballets Negre was touring Britain, and later Europe, two years before the Empire Windrush passenger liner docked on the Thames at Tilbury.

The pair recruited Nigerian drummers and dancers of other ethnicities to make up their troupe and choreographed performances that were influenced by Afro-Caribbean folk-tales and rituals.

Also featured is Sarah Forbes Bonetta. She was a society figure by the time she was photographed by Camille Silvy. Bonetta was born into a Yoruba royal family.


Berto Pasuka, by Angus McBean, 1947© Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

She was captured into slavery as a young child and later given the name Forbes after a Royal Navy captain, Frederick Forbes, convinced her captors to send her as a gift to Queen Victoria instead of keeping her as a slave.

PERCEPTIONS

The Queen arranged for her to be fostered and paid for her education. Bonetta later returned to Africa to live in Lagos with her husband, a wealthy merchant.

“We hope to offer audiences a transformative experience, and an informative encounter in the gallery. To offer new knowledge, that hopefully helps to shift people’s perceptions and inspire audiences to ask critical questions,” said Mussai.

“The display presents a snapshot of the lives of select individuals from different walks of life - a small but potent exhibition.

“Hopefully people will take away with them the notion that there are many more stories to be told, and images to be seen.”

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