Friday, July 9, 2010
Senegalese slave trader: Should he stay or should he go?
The portrait, left, of the 18th century Senegalese Muslim aristocrat, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1701–1773), by the British painter William Hoare, was recently sold at auction in the UK. Its export has been stopped while the National Portrait Gallery tries to raise the necessary £550,000 to keep it in the UK. The Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund have already provided grants, but £100,000 is still needed if it is not to leave the country.
Should it stay?
Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon, was from a family of aristocratic Muslim clerics who traded on the west coast of Africa in the early 18th century (that's a Qur'an around his neck). He was also a slave trader. In 1730, while conducting family business, he was himself mistaken for a slave and shipped to America, where he was bought by a Maryland plantation owner and set to work in the tobacco fields. After his escape and subsequent recapture and imprisonment, he was finally recognised by a British lawyer who sponsored his passage to England where he was welcomed by aristocratic British society.
This immediately brings to mind the case of Omai, the Tahitian who also fascinated British society after being brought to England by Captain Cook in 1774 and whose portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (right) was sold at Sotheby's in November 2001 for £10.3 million.
While unquestionably a compelling image, Hoare's half-length portrait of Diallo has none of the dramatic swagger of Reynolds's full-length portrait of Omai, which has the Tahitian swathed in billowing drapery and wearing a turban, strolling through an extensive English landscape like a tattooed Roman orator. It's not a fair comparison, but while the Reynolds image combined great painterly qualities, art historical importance and an intriguing subject, the image of Diallo is altogether more problematic.
Recent discussions of the painting have focused on Diallo's victim status as a slave, despite the fact that he was himself, first and foremost, a slave trader. Indeed on his return to Africa, Diallo resumed his privileged lifestyle, which included keeping his own domestic slaves.
His obvious 'Otherness' notwithstanding, Diallo was embraced by British aristocrats who identified with his aristocratic bearing and sophistication. Should the National Portrait Gallery be seeking to raise public money for an image of a slave trader whose passage into polite society was secured first and foremost by his privileged background?
One would have to conclude that it is.
Diallo's predicament, if one can call it that — his misfortune at being mistaken for a slave — has a particular resonance in this increasingly globalised world where the currents of late capitalism are rendering growing numbers of people immiserated and powerless.
We in 'the West' are all, in our way, beneficiaries of the many contemporary versions of slavery taking place in developing nations where bonded labour, child labour, and forced labour are used to produce the commodities we take for granted. To say nothing of sex-trafficking, which is arguably one of the worst blights on humanity and to which we all but turn a blind eye.
For these reasons alone, the portrait of Diallo is more thought-provoking than one may at first realise and for that reason ought to be saved for the nation. In 1772, a year before Diallo died (presumably peacefully in his comfortable West African home), a black slave composed a poem which was published in the New London Gazette. Even today, it stands as an eloquent reminder of how conveniently compromised are our attitudes to slavery and other forms of oppression:
Is not all oppression vile?
When you attempt your freedom to defend,
Is reason yours, and partially your friend?
Be not deceiv'd — for reason pleads for all
Who by invasion and oppression fall.
I live a slave, and am inslav'd by those
Who yet pretend with reason to oppose
All schemes oppressive, and the gods invoke
to Curse with thunders the invaders yoke.
O mighty God! let conscience seize the mind
Of inconsistent men, who wish to find
A partial god to vindicate their cause,
And plead their freedom, while they break its laws.
(Quoted in Albert Boime, The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century, Thames & Hudson, 1990, pp29-30)
National Portrait Gallery Appeal