The images displayed in this exhibition were originally Renaissance artworks, painted in Europe between 1400 and 1700. They have been restaged and resituated by the artist and opera singer Peter Brathwaite.
A time of increasing global entanglement, the Renaissance has long been thought of as a peculiarly European movement, a time of cultural ‘re-birth’, which gave rise to artists such as Leonardo and Michelangelo and enshrined new ideals of beauty. A still largely unexplored facet of the Renaissance is the diverse, multicultural European life represented in its art, particularly the representation of Black individuals.
Images of Black people abounded in the Renaissance. They included portraits, drawn from life, of courtiers, ambassadors, merchants and travellers, as well as domestic servants and enslaved individuals. They also included a wider cast of imagined Black identities: biblical subjects and saints, allegorical figures, and even the Virgin Mary herself, were all depicted as Black.
The visibility of these depictions varied. Some were typical of what we might think of as Renaissance art, famous portraits by well-known artists. Others appeared outside the frame – in churches, in notebooks, on the edges of manuscripts. Some were marginal even in the images that contained them, standing in the corners of street-scenes, in the background of court scenes, in the retinues of processions.
Such images testify to the presence and prominence of Black life in Renaissance Europe, but they also mirror its complexities. Many European countries had a long history of trade and diplomatic contact with African kingdoms and territories. From the 1440s onwards the trade of enslaved peoples began to overlay this longer history.
The movement of African peoples, many enslaved, in and out of Europe was one result of this. But not all Black or African people in Europe were connected to slavery, nor were all Black people African. Princes and diplomats, travellers, merchants, emissaries, performers, clergymen and skilled craftsmen all appear in the records, and the visual art, of the Renaissance.
Diasporic communities were part of the fabric of Renaissance urban life. The images displayed in this exhibition testify to the centrality of a Black African diaspora to the European Renaissance, and to the long and diverse history of Africans in Europe and of African Europeans.
Why do these images matter today?
Starting in the first Covid lockdown, the artist and opera singer Peter Brathwaite began a Twitter project as part of the #GettyMuseumChallenge to use household objects to restage famous paintings. Peter was also researching his family past, revealing an ancestry that included both enslaved African ancestors in Barbados and their English enslavers.
There was plenty of evidence for his English ancestors, but no visual evidence at all for his Black ancestors. Reclaiming their place in history, Peter began to restage works that focused specifically on Black portraiture, using materials from his family’s past, especially family heirlooms from Barbados and heritage items from the west Coast of Africa.
The story of Peter’s family is just one example of the way in which individual lives were shaped by slavery and colonialism. It also and equally reveals the way in which Renaissance traditions - of visual art, commemoration and recordkeeping - shape how these histories can be told.
Peter’s images bring to the fore the contemporary importance of historical presence – turning this collection from a meditation of the past to a powerful interrogation of its role in the present. Recovering the diversity of Renaissance Europe involves interrogating the narrative of the Renaissance itself.
Hear Peter's introduction to the exhibition, as he tells us how and why he created the restaged portraits:
Hear Peter's key takeaway messages from the exhibition:
Acknowledgements'Visible Skin' showcases the work of artist Peter Brathwaite in collaboration with the King’s Renaissance Skin research project and King’s Culture. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the exhibition has been curated by Dr Hannah Murphy, Department of History in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.
‘Visible Skin’ is part of the launch programme for Strand/Aldwych, a major new public space in London.
Wiedemann Lampe- Exhibition design
King's Digital Lab- Website design
The Shoots Group- Audio production
Photography by Sam Baldock