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Black Presence in European Art

Watch Art Historian Michael Ohajuru and Dr. Miranda Kaufmann in conversation about Black Presence in European Art.
Hello and welcome. I’m Dr. Miranda Kaufmann, author of Black Tutors The Untold Story. And today we’re talking to Michael Ohajuru, who we met in Week One. And today we’re going to talk more about that broader European presence of Africans across Europe and how they’re depicted in the European art of the time and how that gives us a broader context of Black Tudors. So, Michael, what can we what can we say about the, the, appearance of Africans in European art at the time? Well, the first thing, they were there. That signifies that there were black people in Europe. In some instances, there was thousands. But they were throughout Europe, some of them.
To have them expressed in the art really changes from country to country. Often they’re just signifiers of, their signs of wealth and the status of the people who are painted, who are painting the picture. They are peripheral, they’re marginal. Well, the pictures you want me to talk about today are exceptional in terms of we have some sense of these are really portraits. They’re not just signifiers, images that are their to indicate a black presence. These are real people. You know, Durer, the two by Durer, are just outstanding.
Not just, okay, from the time, of course, from the early 16th century, but portraits in their own rights because, you know, Durer’s one of the great artist of all time, to my mind, in terms of his, his, drawings, and his drawing, and his portraiture and the way he handled paint and, just exceptional. And he does it, he does it here in those two images and he makes them real. When you show me the 1508 one, the ‘Black Man’, you can see this is a real person, you know? Look back to last week when we talked about John Blanke, we can, we can see that’s a caricature. It’s the artist trying to, trying to, create a black a black person.
But here this is an artist who understood the human face and could translate it. And not just human face, but you could have a black, a black man, through his shading. And that’s what makes it really exceptional in terms of we know the person’s black, from the way the shading, not just from the physical things along with the nose and the lips, but from the shading. It’s just exquisite. And you can see how in some ways maybe he was having fun trying to portray a black image because it’s a challenge.
And he it does it so well and it just underlines the fact that he was a great artist, but also there were black people in in Nuremberg in the early 16th century Europe. And you could argue that this is perhaps, Durer at the time, was very obsessed with the famous face and the search for beauty and kind of how you could define beauty in terms of proportions in the face, it could be producing. This could be part of his journey to try and understand that. But he certainly has created something which is very real. How was it that Durer came to encounter these people, and how would he have ended up drawing their portraits?
Well, there would have been, as I indicated, there would have been black people in, in Nuremberg, because it was a wealthy, it was a wealthy town. They would have, they would have had slaves or servants who are black, so they were there. A s for why Durer paint them, I just get the feeling, one, Durer was looking at the human face, in order to understand it more. And Durer was a great, he was a Inquiry, he’s got two of his most famous paintings, One is the, the, it’s called the sword, it’s just a picture of some grass, a grass sword, it’s just grass, and it’s just exquisite the way he’s picked it up.
And then there’s one of a wing, a bird’s wing, just a broken wing, just coloured, and painted, and it’s just exquisite. He’s kind of, he’s got a mind that likes to look at things of interest and tries to portray them. And, I can see that, the black figure, black face, as that kind of drawing challenge that he took on and created this magnificent, wonderful image that speaks to us today. And he meets Katerina in Antwerp, doesn’t he? She’s er, she’s working in the household of some Portuguese merchant there. Yeah, because he was in Antwerp, he was he was there. He was celebrated at the time. He was wined and dined with all the greats.
And he was, part of the ways of giving back, he would, he would paint, he would draw or paint people, this is one of the things he did. And he was ever the eyeful businessman, so his record goes, he looked at what he gave, the value of the paintings and drawings he gave, versus what he was given in return. Then he concludes it wasn’t a financial success, the trip to Antwerp, but nevertheless, celebrated.
So I think, I think we know that there were larger numbers of Africans in Southern Europe, in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and I think once we realised that the Netherlands, sort of modern day Holland and Belgium were ruled by the same monarch as Spain, so they were known as the Spanish Netherlands at the time. That’s why we find this black presence in that part of Northern Europe as well. And there is this other wonderful portrait, isn’t there? The Jan Mostaert portrait of a, of a black man at the court of Margaret of Austria? Well again, an exceptional image, because in this case, we don’t know, we’ve no name, no name to the man.
People who try to put this, this Christopher the Archer, they tried to backfill and create the archer. I’m not fully convinced by that. But nevertheless, we tried. But one thing we do know, that Jan Mostaert has painted a black man of some circumstance. Even if we didn’t know the comparative paintings by Jan Mostaert, because he’s painted elites in that same pose, complete with the cap with his pilgrim badge, with those very fine gloves on, these, all elites, we know he is an elite. Not just from those things, but from his stance, his whole demeanour, the picture, it’s about ‘me’, ‘look at me’. And you can compare that to John Blanke.
John Blanke, that’s not a portrait of John Blanke, that’s just, that’s a bloke on a horse being depicted there, he’s part of something else, the picture’s not about him. Well this picture is one hundred percent about, about this black character and that’s what makes it truly exceptional in Western European art. We were celebrating a European. There are images of Arabs, you know, there’s the Morocco ambassador. But he’s, he’s clearly foreign, he’s not, he’s not European. But this character, this African gentleman as he’s called in the Reich Museum now, he’s clearly a man of some circumstance and knows, knows his value.
So just as John Blanke knew his value through that petition, here, this man knows who he is by his stance, h is demeanour. And the fact the Jan Mostaert, who’s, who’s painting the well-to-do, the time is just painting another well-to-do person. And what’s quite interesting is that, that Mostaert and Durer are contemporaries painting what, painting what they saw and painting very real images.
I show some of these images when I give lectures, because I think they’re quite, as you know, like an image speaks a thousand words, and I think they’re really useful in kind of jolting people and confounding people’s assumptions that in British and European Western history, or Africans historically, you know, before the, before the 19th century, would have been enslaved and very low status and certainly not wearing grand clothes like in some of these images. And there’s another unidentified, very wealthy looking African figure from that of a Dutch painting around around the same sort of time that I’m sure you know as well. And, you know, it’s just that.
And then there’s that fantastic portrait of the Congolese ambassador to the Dutch a bit later in the 1640s, which I always think is Guy Fawkes with one key difference, or a kind of royalist cavalier. It looks like, you know, that fantastic big feather in his hat and everything. There’s a sinister thing to backdrop to that, to the ambassador. Part of his, part of the presence that he bought from the king, the King in Congo, to John Maurice in Brazil was two hundred slaves. Two hundred slaves as a gift to Brazil. Then he went on to Holland to meet, he wanted some words with the people at Holland.
But there’s, that’s two sides to the African presence there, because they were elites. Slaves were slaves, They were, were not. They had a different understanding of slaves. And just a few remarks on that, in terms of slavery in Africa was a part of life. You became a slave or you moved out of slavery. It was chattel slavery that was invented in the Caribbean and the Americas, it was a different form of slavery. Because in Britain and Europe it was different. In terms of you, if your father was a free man, then you were a free man.
Again, there were so many wonderful portraits, you know, there’s that whole series of books, the Image of the Black and Western Art, there’s just so many pictures from this period and from other periods as well. But again, we’re running out of time. So, yeah. Thank you so much. And I hope some people get to go on your tours of the London galleries and see you talk about some of these other pictures as well.

Watch Michael Ohajuru and Miranda Kaufmann in conversation about Black presence in 16th century European Art.

In this video Michael Ohajuru discusses the images of Africans in Europe by Albrecht Dürer and Jan Mostaert introduced in the previous step, and explores their significance.

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You can find out more about Michael Ohajuru’s investigation of Black presence in Renaissance art in London galleries in his Image of the Black website.


  • After seeing the images of European Africans in the last step, what interested you most in the discussion with Michael Ohajuru?

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Black Tudors: The Untold Story

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