"They are here because you were there. There is no understanding Englishness without understanding its imperial and colonial dimensions.” Stuart Hall 2008. There are two ways to view Spellman Museum of Fine Art’s latest exhibition, Black Chronicles II. One is through a historical perspective; an analysis of what, and whom, was present during Victorian era England. The exhibition is certainly an emphatic window into the past, despite the presence the portraits render. “They could have been taken yesterday,” were some of the comments I overheard. However, as historically significant as the imagery is, to fully appreciate the depth of the pictures, a cultural lens is how the exhibition is to be viewed.
Stuart Hall (1932-2014), a cultural theorist whom the exhibition is dedicated to, spent a career examining cultural identity in the context of modern and colonial society. His quote above opens a dialogue that begins to turn the Black Chronicle portraits back on the viewer. Originally published in an English newspaper in 1891, the portraits emphasized the “otherness” of the black faces. Interestingly, the term black applied as easily to an Indian person as it did an African, a reflective reminder of colonial influence. What these pictures are really doing, however, is showing the viewer English society. They are showing us England.
What does it mean to be British? That is the primary question Black Chronicles is addressing. A black man of African descent living in England, Stuart Hall was, himself, born in Kingston, Jamaica. He said, “Britain is my home, but I am not English.” One’s identity is shaped, largely, by society. Hall would argue that we must take into account the context of our own cultural relationship with society. I keep thinking of boxing champion Peter Jackson, The Black Prince, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Queen Victoria’s Goddaughter, two portraits presented in Black Chronicles. Their presence is nothing short of high English aristocracy, and with only a superficial view one is completely unaware of the historical context of how these two individuals came to be in England. Are they English? It is a question that this exhibition is asking the viewer.
By extension, and no doubt the presence of Black Chronicles at Spellman College, the exhibition is also addressing American identity, particularly African American identity. There is a strong correlation between African presence in Victorian England and the United States, a result of colonization and imperialism, and examining these portraits one also begins to ask: What is an American? I think Professor Hall presented these types of inquiries to his students because society structured definitions, historical and cultural definitions are all quite different, despite the fact that they are addressing the same issue. These photographs are asking analogous questions, and forcing the viewer to engage the answers through a cultural critique.
If Cultural Marxism, or Deconstruction Theory is not a topic of interest to you, then Black Chronicles II also presents the best wet-plate collodion prints I’ve seen lately. After uncovering the glass plate negatives, master printer Mike Spry was called upon to prep the photographs for exhibition. There is a hyper-real quality to the prints. The tones have a unique depth, sizing is apropos (larger than life size) and it is true, “They could have been shot yesterday.” The relationship the viewer has to these figures is symbiotic. I feel the boxer Peter Jackson’s sense of pride, and in turn I am proud of him. Each portrait looks back at you, and if they don’t make you question your own identity, look closer.