Oftentimes, when we look at Victorian portraits, our eyes are drawn first to the clothing, hairstyles, and perhaps even the backdrop stylings. But how often do we allow for a deeper exploration; to really wonder about the stories of the people staring back at us?
In the Black Chronicles II exhibit, curator Renée Mussai presented over 200 photographs of black men and women from Victorian Britain. The exhibit included many pieces of portraiture that had never before been exhibited or published, offering new glimpses into black experiences during this period of history.
Karen Alexander, a freelance writer and curator, spoke about the exhibit in an interview, “…I think there’s a sense in which there’s an elegance and a pensiveness in relation to how a lot of the women in the photographs are sitting. And, so, it makes me wonder about what happens after the camera is put down. Do they take the clothes off? Where do they go home to? Have they got a group of friends who are sitting around and laughing and joking, and nodding to say they look good? Or are they going back to a session of servitude? It’s very hard to read but I do think that, in relation to some of the stances, you do get a feeling that they have some knowledge of historical paintings, and how you hold yourself and how you look, and what a pose is.”
“…They are projecting and, in a way, hopefully, they were hoping that someday people like you and me would actually see them and have some sort of connection with them.”
Here are a few of my favorites from the exhibit. (More can be found here.)
From the "In a Different Light" Collection: Unidentified Sitter, Liverpool, 1880s, by Medrington.
From the "In a Different Light" Collection: Amanda Smith, circa 1876-1877, by T.B. Latchmore. Amanda Smith (1837-1915) was a former African American slave turned Quaker evangelist and missionary.
From the "In a Different Light" Collection: Unidentified Sitter. Date unknown, Fenchurch St, EC. London. Photograph by C.T. Newcombe.
I highly recommend reading about the Black Chronicles II project for more about their research and the stories behind the portrait subjects. And listen to the full interview with Karen Alexander to hear more about the far-reaching impacts of the exhibit, and how these photographs can reshape the lens through which we view the Victorian period, and the people who lived during this time.