British arts bring black historical figures to the fore

British-Zambian artist Hannah Uzor and her portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta at Osbourne House in the Isle of Wight.
British-Zambian artist Hannah Uzor and her portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta at Osbourne House in the Isle of Wight.PHOTO: ENGLISH HERITAGE/ INSTAGRAM

LONDON •The tale of an enslaved West African girl turned protegee to an English queen may sound like the stuff of fairy tales, but it comes straight from the history books - one of many forgotten black British stories ripe for retelling.

From African slave girls to post-war Caribbean immigrants, black Britons are being resurrected in the arts as part of a wider reappraisal of racism and who gets to write history.

Omoba Aina, who was renamed Sarah Forbes Bonetta, was given to Queen Victoria in 1850 as a girl and became an influential figure among Victorian high society, according to cultural body English Heritage.

In the wake of last year's Black Lives Matter movement, stories about black historical figures have resurfaced, spurring the arts and cultural sector to revitalise their collections in a bid to diversify the industry.

"The heritage sector has a huge part to play in broadening our understanding of British society in the past," Dr Matt Thompson, head collections curator at English Heritage, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"What we want to do is to try and tell the most complete story of England as we can. We can't do that if we're focusing on only a very narrow set of narratives of individuals. In some cases, these stories have been overlooked and ignored."

From director Steve McQueen's Small Axe (2020) to the hit Netflix drama series Bridgerton (2020 to present), which drew 63 million viewers in its first month and featured a diverse cast set in Regency England, the appetite for black British stories is palpable.

Last October, English Heritage unveiled a large portrait of Bonetta at Osborne House, Queen Victoria's seaside home on the Isle of Wight, a precursor to an upcoming series highlighting black British figures.

"It's not just about the voices in the past that we need to bring out. We need to make sure we have more voices within the sector, diversify visitors, diversify people within the sector,"said Dr Thompson.

Just 11 per cent of people working across the arts are from a black and ethnic minority background, according to an industry report by The Arts Council last year.

English visitors to museums, galleries and other cultural attractions in the country are also skewed, with white Britons making up more than half of visits in 2019, compared with 34 per cent who were black and 44 per cent of Asian descent, according to government data.

British-Zambian artist Hannah Uzor, whose portrait of Bonetta takes pride of place at Osbourne House, said she plans more portraits of black Britons, an art form that has long been a signifier of a subject's perceived prominence.

Uzor said she was surprised Bonetta's story was so little known in modern Britain given her place in royal history.

"If her story was hidden, how much more of other people's stories have been hidden?" Uzor said.

"Until we have our museums filled with black figures - whether up there with the elite or the poor black person on the street - it's just important to have a true reflection of our history."

Uzor said it was crucial to spread these lost stories beyond the walls of galleries or stately homes and into the classroom.

"Though we can't change mindsets with just one portrait, it's the long-term legacy of what we do from now that really makes a bigger impact. The only way to continue the conversation is to look at our children and what they're learning," she said.

Social enterprise The Black Curriculum, which works to include black history in the school curriculum, said it has had huge interest since launching in 2019, training more than 1,300 teachers last year.

Seeing black British figures in museums, galleries and on screens is an effective way to bring the story to life outside of the classroom, said spokesman Addie Tadesse.

"With figures such as Sarah Forbes Bonetta, we're able to view our history on 18th-and 19th-century Britain in a more holistic angle and one that includes black Britain," she said.

"So, seeing that in mainstream media will really beautifully complement the work being done in schools."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2021, with the headline 'British arts bring black historical figures to the fore'. Subscribe