First portraits of black Victorians on display in London

The photos embody "several intertwining narratives -- colonial, cultural and personal," co-curator Renée Mussai says.

By Annie Martin

LONDON, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- Photos of the first black men and women photographed in Britain are currently on display at Rivington Palace in London.

The exhibit is called Black Chronicles II, and includes pictures of Queen Victoria's goddaughter Sara Forbes Bonetta, Ethiopian prince Dejazmatch Alamayou Tewodros, Major Musa Bhai and the African Choir. The photos were taken in Britain in the 1800s, and were last shown in the London Illustrated News in 1891.


"Black Chronicles II is a part of a wider ongoing project called The Missing Chapter, which uses the history of photography to illuminate the missing chapters in British history and culture, especially black history and culture," co-curator Renée Mussai told the Guardian. "There is a widespread misconception that black experience in Britain begins with the arrival of the Empire Windrush and the first Jamaican immigrants in 1948, but, as this exhibition shows, there is an incredible archive of images of black people in Britain that goes right back to the invention of photography in the 1830s."

Mussai emphasized the "several intertwining narratives -- colonial, cultural and personal -- embedded in these images," including the photos of Bonetta and Tewodros. Bonetta was captured from West Africa as a girl, and was raised as Queen Victoria's goddaughter in the British middle class. Tewodros was an Ethiopian prince whose father died rather than surrender to British troops, and was adopted by English explorer Captain Tristam Speedy.

"There is a certain melancholy to many of these images, particularly the portraits of children, that speaks of exile and estrangement," Mussai reflected. "The history of colonialism, in all its contradictions, is present in these portraits."

"There is no understanding Englishness without understanding its imperial and colonial dimensions," the curator continued. "The excavated images in Black Chronicles II provide a crucial and, until now, overlooked way of further understanding that complex connection."


Black Chronicles II is on display at Rivington Palace in London until November 29.

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