London’s National Portrait gallery has recently unveiled a rare photo collection exploring 19th century black British life.
Launched in May, the Black Chronicles exhibition is shedding light on the forgotten history of Africans who found themselves in Britain during the Victorian period and address their absence in contemporary history books.
The photographs reveal the first African, Caribbean and Asian people ever photographed in Britain and were retrieved from the archives of the London stereoscopic company by curator Renee Mussai.
Amongst some of the highlights at the exhibition is the portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who was captured as a slave and later became a Victorian Society figure.
Prior to the exhibition, some of the images had not been seen or published in over 120 years.
“One of the most tantalizing figures in this collection is the portrait of a young African woman by the name of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, her album is right next to me by Camille Sylvia Society photographer of the time. Now this young woman came to Britain around the age of five, she was brought over as a gift to Queen Victoria who took her under her wing, paid for her education and ensured that she was integrated within Victorian society. However, we know very little about what her actual experience was like and what she would have felt like a young African woman amongst the British society,” said exhibition curator Renee Mussai.
The subjects of the exhibition are diverse; ranging from unidentified servants to members of a South African choir visiting Britain to a portrait of UK heavyweight boxing champion Peter Jackson.
Having been taken in various studios before 1938, the costumes and clothes worn by the subjects reveal that the pictures were taken over a century ago.
“The way that people were dressed in each of the portraits carries a lot of symbolism. I mean even now today, the way anyone dresses is an important part of their identity. But I feel like in each of these portraits in this exhibition it carries an added weight. So when we see people wearing their traditional clothes standing outside the Houses of Parliament or anywhere else it is kind of more of a spectacle,” said gallery visitor Nabihah Iqbal.
“There are certain things that are completely not part of the curriculum and me as a young black man in this age that we are living in, I think this is important, not just for the black community or ethnic minorities, I think it’s important for everyone to know because Britain was built on lots of people’s shoulders from across the world,” added another visitor, Nicholas Daley.
The fate of most of the subjects largely remains unrecorded and therefore unknown.
By showing the collection, the curators hope to help the viewer understand the colonial dimension of social change brought about by imperial expansion.
“One of my favorite images, a portrait of two African boys, playfully posing in the studio of the London Stereoscopic Company with a large format camera kind of pretending to photograph each other. And that image is wonderfully poignant and poetic but also a political photograph,” added Mussai.
The exhibition will run until December 11.