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The Black British presence explored through art in Atlanta

The Black British presence explored through art in Atlanta

The Spelman College Museum of Fine Art will present Black Chronicles II, an exhibition curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy of London-based arts agency Autograph ABP, which explores the Black presence in late 19th century Victorian Britain through the prism of studio portraiture. The stunning mix of rare and mostly never-seen images depicts both ordinary and prominent citizens—including artists, dignitaries, servicemen and women, missionaries, students, performers and international royalty—captured in portraits by professional photographers. The exhibition, which makes its Southeast debut at Spelman before it returns to London, will be on view Jan. 29-May 14, 2016.

Developed through original research in the holdings of national archives and several private collections in the United Kingdom and collaboration with the Hulton Archive, a division of Getty Images, the exhibition includes more than 100 photographs taken in commercial studios across Britain during the Victorian era. The invention of photography in 1839 and the gaining popularity of portraits introduced a powerful way to capture a sitter’s likeness and mood. However, Black people in Britain are absent from early photographic histories. By excavating the Hulton Archive, Black Chronicles II identifies an intriguing selection of photographs—a majority seen for the first time in public—to redress the question of ‘absence’ in Britain’s historical and visual records.

The exhibition’s focus is a newly rediscovered body of photographic portraits from the Hulton Archive’s London Stereoscopic Company collection, including a series of more than 30 portraits of The African Choir, which toured Britain between 1891 and 1893. Buried deep in the archives for decades, these images are presented with a carefully curated selection of original albumen cartes-de-visite (calling cards) that became popular collectibles in the late 19th century.

Alongside portraits of unidentified subjects, the exhibition features well-known period personalities with extraordinary stories, such as Sarah Forbes Bonetta, brought to England from West Africa and “god-daughter” to Queen Victoria; Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia, who was taken to Britain as a young boy after his father committed suicide following defeat by the British; international boxing champion Peter Jackson a.k.a. “The Black Prince” from the island of St. Croix; and Kalulu, the African “boy servant” of British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who inspired Stanley’s 1873 book My Kalulu, Prince, King and Slave: A Story of Central Africa. Together, the visual presence of these sitters bears direct witness to their personal narratives, the complexities of colonial and imperial history, and the expansion of the British Empire.

“Black Chronicles II makes the archive, which is often viewed as a static place for researching the past, come alive,” said Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Ph.D., director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. “While the Black subjects in the portraits hail from the Victorian era, it provokes a variety of pressing discussions about tracing our ancestry, maintaining family albums, the various ways that photographs continue to shape views about race, and the under-considered relationship between photographers and sitters. The Museum is privileged to present this important internationally touring exhibition.”

The Museum is organizing workshops, gallery walks, Community Conversations, lectures and other programs in collaboration with academic departments, community groups, and arts organizations. These public programs will examine and explore important themes including the importance of excavating hidden histories, the significance of the archive, and the active role that images play in shaping contemporary discourse on race and equality.

Autograph ABP Curator and Head of Archive Renée Mussai, who led on the research and curation of Black Chronicles II said the collection discredits the notion that Black faces in Victorian Britain were absent from the historical and visual record. Mussai added the exhibition’s premise is to “open up critical inquiry into the archive and continue our mission of continuously writing Black photographic history. At the heart of the exhibition is the desire to resurrect Black figures from oblivion and re-introduce them into contemporary consciousness.”

Black Chronicles II is dedicated to the memory of Stuart Hall (1932 – 2014), the late cultural theorist and former Autograph ABP chairman. Mussai and co-curator Mark Sealy, Director of Autograph ABP, have used Hall’s influential work on Black identity in Britain to drive the exploration of the exhibition’s narrative. The exhibition features text and audio excerpts from Hall’s seminal 2008 keynote speech on archives and cultural memory.

“Black Chronicles II is a stunning exhibition and the fact that the majority of the negatives unearthed from within the Hulton Archive have lain undisturbed, bound in brown paper and string for over 120 years, is truly extraordinary,” said Matthew Butson, vice president of the Hulton Archive.

Spelman College Museum of Fine Art’s presentation of Black Chronicles II is made possible by the Wish Foundation and the LUBO Fund. Atlanta Celebrates Photography is a supporting partner.

Black Chronicles II features the collections of Autograph ABP, Hulton Archive, Jenny Allsworth, Val Wilmer, and Paul Frecker/The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography, amongst others, and is supported by Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund.

Lecture and Opening Reception
On Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, at 6:30 p.m., Autograph ABP Curator and Head of Archive Renée Mussai will present an illustrated lecture on these recently discovered photographs, the majority of which have not been published or presented to the public until now. A reception will follow. This event is free and open to the public.

To schedule a group tour of Black Chronicles II, please contact the Museum at or 404-270-5607.

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The Spelman College Museum of Fine Art is located in the Atlanta University Center on the Spelman College campus on the first floor of the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby, Ed.D. Academic Center at 350 Spelman Lane, S.W., Atlanta, Ga. 30314.

For visitors using GPS navigation systems, the following address leads to the front entrance of Spelman College: 440 Westview Drive, S.W., Atlanta, Ga. 30310.

The Museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturdays, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. The Museum is closed Sundays, Mondays, major holidays and official College breaks. visit for more details.