Rediscovering Black Portraiture opened at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery on 14 April. The opera singer and artist Peter Brathwaite has created photographic depictions of historic paintings with Black sitters, featuring himself and a range of makeshift props using household items to restage the images.
Peter tells us about how the idea for the exhibition was born:
“During the Covid-19 pandemic, I was inspired by challenge set by the Getty Museum for people across social media to recreate their favourite pieces of art using everyday items they had in their homes. At the same time, I had just started doing some family tree research and as I dug deeper into this, I realised that although there were portraits of my white ancestors, I found none of my black ancestors from the 1700s and 1800s. I thought that instead of just recording them within my family tree, I could recreate art works to honour them. So, I set myself the challenge of doing one every day for 50 days, sharing them on social media. The exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and at the Georgian House along with my book Rediscovering Black Portraiture is the result of this.
“We opened on Friday 14 April, a date that marks the anniversary of the uprising in Barbados in 1816, and there is a replica banner from the rebellion on the plinth in the front hall. The exhibition winds its way around the art collections and includes interventions and soundscapes (one with me singing!) that reveal the Black presence hidden at the heart of our spaces and objects. It was a special moment to see these reimagined artworks displayed in a museum as the original portraits probably would have been.
“I created a new commission, specifically for this exhibition, based on The Young Catechist, a painting by Henry Meyer featuring a 19th century African man at prayer. Re-enacting this painting has led to some serious discoveries for me and my own ancestry in Barbados. I uncovered a wealth of detail about my enslaved and enslaver ancestors and their history, including an uprising of enslaved people in 1816 and songs of resistance they sang. My great-great-great-great grandfather Edward (Addo) Brathwaite (1742-1831) was forcibly converted to Christianity during his enslavement in Barbados. Like Addo, the African man in Meyer’s painting’s most deeply held beliefs – and his very identity – were transformed through his encounter with European culture. You can read about the history behind this commission in this Bristol museums blog.
“In my research into Black sitters, such as Emmanuel Rio, formerly described as a ‘gardener and horn-player’, but now known by his name, I hope to bring previously undiscussed or even hidden historic Black figures to light. As a singer, I breathe life into characters. My photographic recreations of artworks draw on this discipline, finding new ways of telling untold or suppressed stories”.
The exhibition is open at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery until 3 September and also will feature at Georgian House when it reopens on 12 June.
You can purchase the accompanying book Rediscovering Black Portraiture here.