- Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World Ed. by Agnes Lugo-Ortiz and Angela Rosenthal
One of the color plates enlivening the pages of Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World is the compelling portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. Diallo was a wealthy, well-educated Muslim West African who—in a twist of dreadful irony—while returning from a trip to sell slaves to European traders was sold into slavery himself. Shipped across the Atlantic in 1731 to Maryland, Diallo managed to write a letter in Arabic to his father detailing his plight. This letter did not make it to Africa, but rather ended up in England. There, after being translated at Oxford, it roused the sympathy of humanitarians and abolitionists who purchased Diallo from his colonial American slaveholder in 1733, brought him to England, and raised the money to send him home to Africa. Diallo was one of the very few enslaved Africans ever to return home free. Yet once back in Africa, he continued—in another ironic twist—to engage in slaveholding and trading. While still in England, Diallo quickly became a cause célèbre in a Britain made sympathetic toward educated, well-born African captives by Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) and its popular offshoots. Accordingly, his benefactors insisted on capturing his likeness in a portrait. British artist William Hoare’s painting of Diallo was the result. Hoare captures the image of Diallo as a [End Page 560] refined, religious man with white robes and turban, aquiline features and the Qur’an hanging from a red cord around his neck.
In “Slavery and the Possibilities of Portraiture,” the brilliant essay that opens the first part of Slave Portraiture, Marcia Pointon discusses Hoare’s portrait of Diallo, using it as one example in her sweeping look at the entire genre. Pointon argues that these portraits, objects born from colonizing encounters and uneven power dynamics, are things that by their very nature trouble traditional theoretical concepts of both self and genre. In her discussion, Pointon notes that Diallo’s portrait had recently appeared on the art market after long years of being missing. It has since been sold, to the Orientalist Museum in Doha, Qatar, which—due to a convoluted chain of events—has given it on long-term loan to London’s National Portrait Gallery.
This portrait, along with its histories of creation, disappearance, and display, was among the topics discussed at a recent conference sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University (November 2014). At this conference, Visualizing Slavery and British Culture in the Eighteenth Century, participants learned that at the National Portrait Gallery, Diallo’s likeness was hung next to a poem written about it by the contemporary Nigerian-born British poet Ben Okri. Both portrait and poem have attracted a great deal of popular attention. Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World is a timely book: the near concurrence of an edited volume and a (not directly related) conference (and exhibition), along with the notable popular reaction to both Diallo’s portrait and Okri’s poetry, points to a rising interest among both scholars and the wider public in the visual culture of slavery. Moreover, the recent history of the Diallo portrait—and its display next to a poem—provides a particularly fitting context for Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, as it is a book that owes its largest scholarly debt to dialogues between literary scholars and art historians.
Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World is significant as the first book to focus on the long-neglected topic of portraits of enslaved people from the beginnings of Western trade in African slaves to abolition. The editors make it clear, however, that this is not meant to be either a history of the visual culture of slavery or a survey of the genre. Rather, it looks at portraiture and enslavement in tandem, in order to highlight the instability of both terms. At its most fundamental, this is a book about portraits of enslaved and freed people of African descent...