Wednesday, July 07, 2010

National Portrait Gallery Appeal for Freed Slave Portrait

Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo also known as Job ben Solomon (c.1701-73)
by William Hoare (c.1707-72), 1733
Oil on canvas, 762 x 642 mm

This morning the National Portrait Gallery launched an Appeal to fund the balance required to secure the earliest known British oil painting of a freed slave which has never before been seen in public.

It's also the first portrait of a named African muslim in Britain.  The subject is Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (c.1701-73) (known when he was in England as Job ben Solomon), and it shows the sitter painted in 1733 in his traditional African dress wearing his copy of the Qur’an around his neck.

Ayuba's memoirs were published as one of the earliest slave narratives, that is, a first-person account of the slave trade, in Thomas Bluett's Some Memories of the Life of Job, the Son of the Solomon High Priest of Boonda in Africa; Who was a Slave about two Years in Maryland; and afterwards being brought to England, was set free, and sent to his native Land in the Year 1734.

He had been an educated man from a family of Muslim Clerics.  At the age of 29 he had been captured and enslaved and travelled to the USA - and survived the voyage (while many of course did not).  There he was found in Maryland by Thomas Bluett who recognising him to be an educated man who could write Arabic and brought him to England.  He was introduced to Society and met Sir Hans Sloan and the King.  In due course, he was freed due to public subscription.  At the time of the portrait, he is being treated as an individual and equal prior to returning home to West Africa. 

A total of £554,937 has to be raised by 25 August 2010 to secure this painting, after which it is at risk of export.   It was sold at Christies and is now the subject of a temporary export bar.  The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the Art Fund have already agreed to provide funding to help secure the painting of £333,000 and £100,000 respectively.

The intention is that if the money can be raised that a two year project will enable a range of activities and exhibitions with partner museums to explore issues associated with slavery, identity and portraiture.  If the Appeal raises the funds required, in Year 1 it will be on display in the National Portrait Gallery and in Year 2 it would tour to:
Initially the plan is to have the portrait on display on the ground floor of the National Portrait Gallery until the end of August
A curious story

The back story to the portrait is very curious.  This is the information I was given by the NPG.
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (c.1701-73) is significant to the history of the early eighteenth-century Transatlantic slave trade and Britain’s historical understanding of different cultures and religions. Born to a powerful family of Muslim clerics in the Senegambia region of West Africa, Diallo was a high-status, educated and wealthy individual who, as well as his native language, was versed in Arabic and came to learn English. In 1731, while on a trading mission to sell slaves down the River Gambia, Diallo was kidnapped, shaved of his beard – the distinguishing mark of his Islamic identity – and sold into slavery. He was then transported on a British ship to Maryland where he was sold and put to work on a tobacco plantation. Frustrated by the hard physical labour and the abuse he received when conducting his prayers, Diallo escaped. He was soon caught and imprisoned but was permitted to write a letter, in Arabic, to his father. This incident came to the attention of the English lawyer and missionary Thomas Bluett, who was impressed by Diallo’s character, his literacy and strict observance of Islamic prayers and dietary laws, and concluded that Diallo was ‘no common Slave’ (Bluett, Memoirs).

Bluett brought Diallo to London in 1733 where they lodged together for a while before Diallo moved to Africa House in the City, at the expense of the Royal African Company. During his time in England, he was received with enthusiasm by aristocrats and scholars including the 2nd Duke of Montagu and the Duke of Devonshire. He was soon regarded as an ‘African gentleman’ -- an unusual accolade in the eighteenth century which reflects the esteem in which he was held by his supporters who admired his religious conviction and found reassuring parallels in his moral standards and monotheistic theology.

He translated Arabic manuscripts and inscriptions for Sir Hans Sloane and made three transcriptions of the Qur’an from memory. Sloane arranged for Diallo to be presented to King George II and Queen Caroline and to be elected a member of the Gentleman’s Society of Spalding. Diallo was freed from slavery with money raised by public subscription and arrangements were made for his return to Africa, making him one of the very few victims of the slave trade to survive and return home. Although Diallo went back to owning slaves - as non-Muslims he considered them ‘infidels’ – he was determined to negotiate the freedom of a fellow Muslim who had been enslaved at the same time as him. He also brokered arrangements with the Royal African Company for the redemption of any Muslim slave who fell into their hands in the future.
It's amazing that we should know so much about an individual and his life considering what happened to him.  I recommend clicking the link to Bluett's memoirs and reading the sections relating to this individual.

It's even more amazing that a portrait exists, given the attitude of some traditional muslims to the creation of portraits and who can portray what to whom.
His supporters additionally arranged for him to sit for this portrait, which is also the earliest known painting by the artist William Hoare of Bath. The conflict for the sitter is recorded in a contemporary account which not only indicates the affection in which Diallo was held but sheds light on the practice of portraiture in England and other cultures

‘Job’s Aversion to Pictures of all Sorts, was exceeding great; insomuch, that it was with great Difficulty that he could be brought to sit for his own. We assured him that we never worshipped any Picture, and that we wanted his for no other End but to keep us in mind of him. He at last consented to have it drawn; which was done by Mr Hoare.’
(Thomas Bluett, Memoirs, p.50)

The artist has responded sensitively to Diallo’s personality by depicting him, at the sitter’s own request, in his traditional dress and carrying his copy of the Qur’an around his neck. The painting has not previously been exhibited in public, although it was engraved in 1734 and a version was published again in 1750.

I think there will be some interesting challenges posed for museums when presenting the portrait.  Both in terms of Diallo personally who was himself a slave owner and went back to owning household slaves when he returned home and, secondly, the acceptance by Islam of slavery at that time (ie 18th century).  Today in Africa there has been no abolition of slavery
Slavery in Africa continues today.   Slavery existed in Africa before the arrival of Europeans - as did a slave trade that exported millions of Africans to North Africa, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf
Wikipedia - Slavery in modern Africa
There is also some considerable scope to explore the attitudes of Islam towards portraiture generally both past and present and how this varies in place and time.  The gallery is being supported by some expert advice on this matter.

However it is an extremely fine portrait and one which has really exceptional historical and sociological importance and the Appeal is well worth supporting.

Donations to the National Portrait Gallery Ayuba Suleiman Diallo Appeal can be made:
National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, WC2H 0HE 
Opening hours: Saturday-Wednesday: 10am – 6pm; Late Opening: Thursday, Fridays:10am - 9pm 


Anonymous said...

I personally feel that this painting should be sent to his Homeland - that is the LEAST we could do to atone for the degradation that was forced upon this noble soul! britain has no use for it, except as an object of pitiless curiosity. He deserves better than that from his captors.

ossiebullock said...

Not quite sure where his "Homeland" is, Goddess - perhaps you know something we don't? And presumably wherever it is can no longer be a Muslim country, is that right? You do realize that if it is a Muslim country they will in all probability not exactly welcome the gift of a hand-painted image of a creature that has a soul?

Perhaps I'm being unfair, but I have a feeling you haven't actually read the whole of this piece - if you had, you might have picked up on the "idolatrous image" problem. Oh, and you might have seen that "this noble soul" was himself a slave-owner, and even a slave TRADER.

As for his "captors" and their "pitiless curiosity", I'm not sure that we know who captured him, do we? You seem to know that it was Britons - how? Most of the capturing, ironically, was actually done by Muslims - often Arabs - who then sold them on to the British and Spanish. It seems to have been a British ship, certainly, that took him to America; but it was also the British who rescued him from America, and ultimately freed him and got him home to West Africa....where he went back to owning slaves himself.

Slavery was a complex business, and appreciating the hideous inhumanity of it requires far more than some simplistic view of "bad" Europeans/Americans, and "good" Africans. If, as I hope, the portrait stays in the country which played such a large role in the extraordinary story, it will trigger much interest and research - and deep, far-from-pitiless thought. It will also be very well looked after. Can you tell us if there is a suitable facility in, say, Senegal, that can provide the same benefits - for the picture itself, and for our understanding of what it reresents?

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