DUCFS 2021 Head of Events, Miriam Sabapathy, sits down with Alayo Akinkugbe, the founder of @ablackhistoryofart to discuss representation and visibility of Black voices in the field of arts.
Alayo Akinkugbe is a second year History of Art student at Cambridge University and is the founder of the successful and rising Instagram account @ablackhistoryofart.
@ablackhistoryofart highlights overlooked Black artists, sitters, curators and thinkers from art history and the present day. In a conversation with DUCFS2021 Head of Events Miriam Sabapathy, Alayo discusses what inspired her to create the account and the implications of the lack of representation and visibility of Black people in art as a form of history.
Recently featured in a viral infographic titled: ‘EightBlack Historians to Follow Now’, @ablackhistoryofart is exactly the type of account that we should befollowing to educate ourselves.
: Miriam Sabapathy
: Alayo Akinkugbe
What inspired you to create your account?
The idea came to me in my first year of university. I wasdoing this History of Art short dissertation, which had to be based on anobject in Cambridge, in first year and I had chosen this drawing of a mixedrace woman. But the only book I could find on it was a book about BlackVictorians in British art and that was it.
“THE ONLY BOOK I COULD FIND ON IT WAS A BOOK ABOUT BLACKVICTORIANS IN BRITISH ART AND THAT WAS IT.”
I kept searching things like ‘Black history of art’, ‘aBlack history of art’ and there was nothing on it. I thought, one day, I wouldlove to write a book which is a comprehensive guide about everything that isBlack about art history: in terms of the people who model, the thinkers, thetheorists, Black art historians, curators, etc - basically everything that’sBlack that is so often left out of any discussions. In my whole first year, wedidn’t talk about a single Black artist. Actually, we didn’t talk about asingle Black person. I think it’s crazy that I can do a whole year and a halfof education, half of my degree, without coming into contact with a Blackperson in my studies at all. It’s just unreal to me. In my first year, we wentfrom Ancient Greece to the modern day. Surely at some point in the 20thcentury, we could have spoken about some Black thinkers or some Black artists?I hadn’t heard of so many curators, artists who are probably revolutionarywithin my degree until I did this optional contemporary art course. Yet 90% ofmy year group won’t have heard of any of these artists by the time they leavebecause they didn’t choose to do this course.
I thought the Instagram account would help me to find atopic that really interested me for my dissertation, and would also help me toself-educate because I don’t want to leave my university degree having studiedmax 4 or 5 Black artists. So it was both self-education and also the desire tosee something like this existing. Since I couldn’t find it, I was like, I’llcreate it!
“SINCE I COULDN’T FIND IT, I WAS LIKE, I’LL CREATE IT!”
The Black figure in 'The Problem We All Live With' Norman Rockwell,1964, 91 cm × 150 cm The primary figure is Ruby Bridges ( @rubybridges_1960 ),a six year-old American girl, on her way to William Frantz Elementary school,New Orleans in November 1960. She was the first student to desegregate theschool. In the image we see the anonymous federal marshals by whom she wasaccompanied to and from school every day for a year. The words "n****r"and "KKK", as well as the tomato splatter on the wall are evocativeof the constant threat that she faced on her way to school by racistprotesters, including white parents who pulled their children out of the schoolupon Bridges' admittance. Now aged 65, Ruby Bridges is an American Civil Rightsactivist and chairs the Ruby Bridges foundation, which aims to promote"values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences".
Topeople who might not know your account, what do you post on your account?
I want to amplify Black voices. And I also want thatamplification to not be restricted by the lens of race, which I think isreflected in the name of my account. The meaning of ‘A Black History of Art’ iscompletely different to the meaning of ‘A History of Black Art’. Some AfricanAmerican artists, Glenn Ligon for instance, describe themselves as Post-Blackbecause they find the term ‘Black art’ limiting. It limits their art to theirrace and encourages the interpretation of their art only through the lensof race. So ‘A Black History of Art’ is kind of saying everything that is Blackabout art history without putting it into a category of “Black Art”. I try tohighlight everything that is Black in art history that we don’t talk about andalso is not often seen - hence why it is not limited to art created by blackpeople, but also includes art created by non-black people in which black peopleare the subjects.
“SO, ‘A BLACK HISTORY OF ART’ IS KIND OF SAYINGEVERYTHING THAT IS BLACK ABOUT ART HISTORY WITHOUT PUTTING IT INTO A CATEGORYOF “BLACK ART”.”
Though recently, since George Floyd’s death, more of myposts have been by American artists and have been mainly to do with race. But Iinitially wanted to talk about Black artists, sitters, curators, withoutfocusing on their race. Once it’s on my page you know it’s going to be aboutBlack artists, sitters, curators, so I can say things like ‘an American artist’without having to say ‘a Black/African American artist’. I feel like otherpeople are always trying to qualify why they are talking about a Black artist.I can just talk about black people on my account and they can just existwithout using their race as the sole means to talk about their work.
Regarding sitters, that’s more about trying to give avoice to anonymous sitters. For most Black sitters, you won’t even know whothey were - even if they modelled for loads of different famous white artists.Often they were enslaved people that were mistreated or presented in the nudewithout their consent, or paid very little by comparison to their whitecounterparts. I think that giving an identity to sitters is something reallyinteresting and something that is glaringly just not emphasised in traditionalart history courses.
“I THINK THAT GIVING AN IDENTITY TO SITTERS IS SOMETHINGREALLY INTERESTING AND SOMETHING THAT IS GLARINGLY JUST NOT EMPHASISED INTRADITIONAL ART HISTORY COURSES.”
Yes, your first post on your account was a portrait of aBlack nude, Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s ‘Portrait D’Une N*gresse’ (1800),whose identity has recently been discovered as Madeleine. What was thecontroversy behind this painting of a Black sitter?
There were critics because she was Black and they didn’twant to see that. The painting was done in a time when Neoclassicism was reallyprevalent. Neoclassical ideals of beauty are basically the same as the Greeksbut a bit more of what you would expect these days: very, very Eurocentricfeatures. So the painting is the opposite of what the ideal woman looks likefor the time. There was a critic, Jean-Baptiste Boutard, who said: ‘‘Whom canone trust in life after such horror! It is a white and pretty hand which hascreated this Blackness.” When I first studied this painting independently in2016, there were no names for this sitter, it was just a portrait of a‘N*gresse’. It really wasn’t about her. Any description about this paintingwould have referred to her as a slave or a servant. There was no attempt tofind out who she was, all the information out there was about the artist.
“THERE WAS NO ATTEMPT TO FIND OUT WHO SHE WAS, ALL THEINFORMATION OUT THERE WAS ABOUT THE ARTIST.”
MARIE-GUILLEMINEBENOIST’S ‘PORTRAIT D’UNE N*GRESSE’ (1800), FROM @ABLACKHISTORYOFART:
Edit: 'Madeleine' Let's start this journey with Marie-GuillemineBenoist's Portrait D'une Negresse (1800), housed in the Louvre, Paris. Thesitter is unknown to us unfortunately, but was likely an enslaved woman fromGuadeloupe brought to France. It is unlikely that she had a say in the way shewas presented, despite the taboos of partial nudity. The sitter has gained someattention in recent years, with the painting having featured in Beyoncé'sAPESHIT music video filmed at the Louvre. Much more to come on this page, thankyou to those who are here at the beginning. Edit: her name was discoveredrecently to have been Madeleine.
Ithink your account is incredibly interesting because so often people think ofArt as just a medium for creativity but it really is a medium for history too.Works of art tells us so much about history and art’s exclusion of Black peoplesays so much about society.
I agree. Museums are supposed to be centres of learningand you’re supposed to go into the museum and get educated. But you go into theNational Gallery, which I love, and everything is white. There is no kind ofcontext that doesn’t relate to anything that might suggest that Europe isn’tlike this amazing place, that is free from anything... bad.
For me, I am always happy that I can go back to Nigeriaand I can just be a person and not be a Black person. I don’t have to thinkabout my race. Everyone is Black. I can be the default. But, if you are a BlackBritish person and you go to the National Gallery - which is so widely andhighly regarded by Britain, and which I love - but it is meant to symboliseeverything that is good about British culture and everything is white andnothing is Black, I suppose you might just feel really dejected. That lack ofrepresentation will inform the ways you move through the world. It will informthe way you move through your education.
“IF YOU ARE A BLACK BRITISH PERSON AND YOU GO TO THENATIONAL GALLERY - WHICH IS SO WIDELY AND HIGHLY REGARDED BY BRITAIN, AND WHICHI LOVE - BUT IT IS MEANT TO SYMBOLISE EVERYTHING THAT IS GOOD ABOUT BRITISHCULTURE, AND EVERYTHING IS WHITE AND NOTHING IS BLACK, I SUPPOSE YOU MIGHT JUSTFEEL REALLY DEJECTED.”
Yes! Representation and visibility are so incrediblebecause of the power of being seen that comes with it. In the UK, I don’t thinkmany people understand what a lack of visibility means.
There’s that video of Muhammed Ali talking about when hewas a child, he would ask his mother: “How come is everything white? Why isJesus white? Why is the Last Supper all white men?” White people will neverhave to think about representation. The only point at which they have to thinkabout representation is when it is taken away. When there is a Blackprotagonist and people talk about it like: ‘look at that Black woman who is themain role in that film’. It’s only noticeable when it’s not whiterepresentation. That’s how inbuilt it is and how set in stone it is.
“THAT LACK OF REPRESENTATION WILL INFORM THE WAYS YOUMOVE THROUGH THE WORLD. IT WILL INFORM THE WAY YOU MOVE THROUGH YOUREDUCATION.”
A prime example is the American plaster company, ‘BandAid’. Only after George Floyd’s death, have they now made a range of colours torepresent a range of different skin tones. This is something that has eatenaway at me my entire life. Yet I know that most white people won’t ever thinkabout the fact that things are made for them. The universal skin tone is madefor them and built for them. It’s so apparent that everything is built forwhite comfort and white people.
So that’s why I think it’s difficult to understand howimportant representation is. Because If everything is built around you and whatyou look like, it might be difficult to understand how it feels to not seeyourself everywhere. To not be seen as the epitome of beauty. To not be seen asthe default.
The exclusion of Black people in history is also verydetrimental in that it also suggests an idea that there are no important orvalid contributions by Black people to society. What do you take from thisexclusion in the curriculum you study at university?
I wouldn’t say that there was an explicit implicationthat there were no Black influences. But I would say that it’s definitely notacknowledged. History in general and the curriculum in education is Eurocentricand white-centric.
To me, there are two main issues to be tackled whenthinking about decolonising Art History. The first is that we need to look atnon-white artists in western spaces. The second is that we need to look atnon-western art in general as being equal to art that is being made in thewest. Looking at a contemporary African-American artist and a contemporaryNigerian artist’s work and talking about them as equals, whilst also not basingit solely on race.
“THE FIRST IS THAT WE NEED TO LOOK AT NON-WHITE ARTISTSIN WESTERN SPACES. THE SECOND IS THAT WE NEED TO LOOK AT NON-WESTERN ART INGENERAL AS BEING EQUAL TO ART THAT IS BEING MADE IN THE WEST.”
For example, I think it would have been important, whenwe were talking about Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth in First Year, toacknowledge that their aesthetic influences may have been as the result ofobserving ethnographic objects from non-western countries in UK museums. Theirsculptures are suggested to be incredibly innovative and original. Sure, theycould be seen as new and original if we were to pretend that non-western artdidn’t exist for them to take influence from! So, yeah, I think there was adisregard for non-western influences definitely or Black influences morespecifically, at university. A lot of Picasso’s paintings are influenced fromAfrican work in museums in Paris. I think it would’ve been important to look,now we are in the 21st century, at this period 100 years ago and to say thatHenry Moore’s sculptures have very similar stylistic qualities to non-westernsculptures from x, y, z.
I guess, initially coming to university, I trusted thatthe curriculum would entail the essential information that we need. Yet whatthey are giving to us is such a selective amount from a very distinctperspective. So we, as students, need to realise that we need to go beyond thatand actually question what we’re being given and taught.
Exactly! We can’t be educated blindly. I think you can betricked into that at school. You just think that teachers are the ultimateintellectual authority. You can’t disapprove or challenge them and you takeeverything you’re given as a given. That could also happen at university if youare not tuned in to the fact that what you are learning was chosen for a reasonand that there are so many layers as to why this is what you’re learning. Weneed to really be made aware of that, so that we can take what we need from thecurriculum and expand on the things that we’re interested in.
“YOU TAKE EVERYTHING YOU’RE GIVEN AS A GIVEN… IF YOU ARENOT TUNED IN TO THE FACT THAT WHAT YOU ARE LEARNING WAS CHOSEN FOR A REASON ANDTHAT THERE ARE SO MANY LAYERS AS TO WHY THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE LEARNING.”
Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Four Twins, 1985 The work is by 20th centuryNigerian photographer, Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989), who worked in the WestAfrican diaspora - based primarily in New York and London. His photographslargely feature the male nude in a studio setting and often include kitschreplicas of archetypal "African" masks (3rd pic). His oeuvre overtlydeals with his identity as a queer black man living through the AIDS crisis.Fani-Kayode made this clear when he said of his craft, 'Photography is the toolby which I feel most confident in expressing myself. It is photographytherefore - Black, African, homosexual photography - which I must use not justas an instrument, but as a weapon if I am to resist attacks on my integrityand, indeed, my existence on my own terms.' [as quoted in Traces of Ecstasy,published by TEN.8 photography magazine, no. 28: Rage & Desire, 1988]
Be aware of the things that are not being taught toyou!
Follow@ablackhistoryofart to learn more about Black figures in art, to keep up todate with Alayo’s work and to get her recommendations on educating yourself(from reading to podcasts to zines).