chapter  2
32 Pages

HISTORY AS PRESENT: PRESENT AS HISTORY

A visitor to Manchester Art Gallery during the spring of 1990 might have entered one of the rooms, under the impression that it contained just another collection of portraits and parlour room scenes so common in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century west European art. However, what all the paintings had in common, apart from their western codes of perspective, was their inclusion of one or more black (African) figures. As Sander Gilman has observed, artistic representations consist almost exclusively of icons which ‘serve to focus the viewer’s attention on the relationship between the portrayed individual and the general qualities of the class’ (1992: 171). So what were the black figures in the paintings supposed to tell us about black people in general, and their relationship to whites? Well, most were positioned on the periphery of the painting, usually somewhere near the frame. Even when they were not, what was striking was the consistency of the portrayal of their roles: subordinate and servile, with facial expressions (fearful and awe-struck) to match. ‘The figure of the black servant in European art is ubiquitous’ (ibid.: 174) and this collection was no exception.