Black Victorians & Benjamin’s Britain, Manchester Art Gallery

Black Victorians: Black People in Victorian Art 1800-1900I left Black Victorians (Manchester Art Gallery to 8 January 2006) and Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery 28 January to 2 April 2006) more than a little suspicious. ‘When I first noticed black faces in Victorian art, I was surprised,’ explains curator Jan Marsh. ‘Like so many people I thought of nineteenth-century culture a wholly “white” in content.’

And so the (rather light) commentary on this exhibition gushes at how black people were depicted as, ‘entertainers, churchmen, sportspeople, artists’ models and politicians’. Yet there are no black artists represented, the politicians are rather tragic and curious figures from foreign lands and many of the others are curiosities. Some pieces were born out of the anti-slavery movement and so it should be no surprise to see positive images of black people here: they’re propaganda.

Tucked in a corner is some popular imagery of the time, such as advertisements for soap that joke about turning black people white and so on. Pinned to this single display case is a large note of apology – lest we’re offended – and an admission that sort of thing has been largely censored. The problem is that Black Victorians has a message that this display case contradicts. The message is that despite indulging the slave trade, the odd genocide et cetera, the Victorians were very often very nice to black people whom they respected. I don’t buy it.

Fortunately, Benjamin Zephaniah’s put together Benjamin’s Britain (Manchester Art Gallery to 8 January 2006), a small collection of photos mostly from the National Portrait Gallery that paint a picture of contemporary Britain. The commentary’s a little light here too, but deliberately and honestly so.

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