Rediscovering Black Portraiture
by Peter Brathwaite
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Pub Date 30 May 2023 | Archive Date Not set
“These mirror images with their uncanny resemblances traverse space and time, spotlighting the black lives that have been silenced by the canon of western art, while also inviting us to interrogate the present.” —Times (UK)
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Peter Brathwaite has thoughtfully researched and reimagined more than one hundred artworks featuring portraits of Black sitters—all posted to social media with the caption “Rediscovering #blackportraiture through #gettymuseumchallenge.”
Rediscovering Black Portraiture collects more than fifty of Brathwaite’s most intriguing re-creations. Introduced by the author and framed by contributions from experts in art history and visual culture, this fascinating book offers a nuanced look at the complexities and challenges of building identity within the African diaspora and how such forces have informed Black portraits over time. Artworks featured include The Adoration of the Magi by Georges Trubert, Portrait of an Unknown Man by Jan Mostaert, Rice n Peas by Sonia Boyce, Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley, and many more. This volume also invites readers behind the scenes, offering a glimpse of the elegant artifice of Brathwaite’s props, setup, and process.
An urgent and compelling exploration of embodiment, representation, and agency, Rediscovering Black Portraiture serves to remind us that Black subjects have been portrayed in art for nearly a millennium and that their stories demand to be told.
An exhibition of Brathwaite’s re-creations is on view at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery in Bristol, UK from April 14 to July 23, 2023.
“Ever since I first stumbled across Peter’s portraits on Twitter, I’ve been captivated by his sharp wit, innovative costuming, rich range of visual reference, and the sheer joy of each image. This is a book that will enchant and intrigue and educate. I’m thrilled by the beauty and fun and history on every page.”
—Samira Ahmed, BBC broadcaster
“This highly entertaining book is a breathtaking visual explosion in which Brathwaite reimagines a wide variety of portraits of Black people in a stunningly creative way. This brilliant concept is not only an original visual treat but also an important historical work that focuses on Black portraiture across the centuries.”
—Baroness Floella Benjamin DBE, actress, presenter, broadcaster, and parliamentarian
“Brathwaite brings a novel innovative way into considering the Black presence in art, creating another dimension to consider and reflect on the original work, helping us not just to engage more deeply with the composition and its subject but bringing the Black presence to life, re-creating it for us today in a thoroughly modern and highly relevant manner—an exciting Black visual tour de force!”
—Michael I. Ohajuru FRSA
“A truly compelling visual feast that reanimates the archives of Black portraiture in the present. Braithwaite brings lost souls back into view in a meditation on Black presence within art's histories. Accompanied by a moving commentary on his own experiences as what he terms 'a rare breed' of Black British opera singer encountering career-long racism, Braithwaite retells narratives of Black historical subjects in order to return dignity and agency to their otherwise so-often 'submerged lives'. Essays from renowned scholars Cheryl Finley, Temi Odumosu and Mark Sealy amplify Braithwaite's sensitive and poetic narrative account, as well as the extraordinarily vibrant and ambitious photographic reconstructions of historic artworks reproduced here in glorious colour. This is one of the most moving and joyous aesthetic legacies of Covid times and a triumph of creative endeavour.”
—Professor Dorothy Price FBA, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art and Critical Race Art History, Courtauld Institute of Art
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 10 members
This was a pleasure to read. Seeing all the artwork that included African American figures, be it as a peripheral figure or the star of the show, was incredible to experience. And the author's idea of re-creating each image seemed to be an excellent idea when explained in the intro. Yet, when actually done, at times it became annoying. Some of the re-creations have the author looking silly, which in turn diminishes the impact of the original artwork. It would have been far better had the author simply focused on demonstrating that African Americans were actually part of western European artworks, providing informative captions explaining each image and personal observations from the author. In short, the artworks are exquisite; the delivery, not so much. Therefore, from an artistic standpoint ONLY, this book is a worthwhile read.
Thanks to NetGalley and Getty for access for this arc, which I voluntarily read and reviewed.
Rediscovering Black Portraiture is Peter Brathwaite's record of the Getty Museum Challenge, a viral internet challenge from 2020 COVID lockdown where people recreated classic works from Art History using items found around their house. Brathwaite, an opera singer and presenter, used the challenge as a springboard for a new artistic challenge for finding Black subjects in European paintings and reinterpreting them with his own voice.
The book is beautiful, with side-by-side comparisons of the original artworks with Brathwaite's recreations, alongside his commentary about the artworks, their Black subjects, and the choices he made while reinterpreting them. While Brathwaite does not shy away from humor, his interpretations are also deeply personal and tied to his family lineage.
I was pleasantly surprised by the theoretical chapter in the middle, an essay by Temi Odumosu called "Feeling in the Dark: Rediscovering Black Portraiture as Speculative Metadata." In this essay, Odumosu explains the hidden biases encoded in the metadata behind algorithmic search engines, especially how they anonymize and deperson Black portrait subjects. Then, Odumosu goes on to offer an interpretation of Brathwaite's recreations as recoding the metadata to allow additional interpretations that are more sympathetic. I thought it was a brilliant analysis that added a lot to the ongoing urgency of Brathwaite's project, especially as the initial impetus (COVID lockdown) has passed.
There was also an interview between Brathwaite and Mark Sealy that I felt was less than successful, I am not sure if this is a factor of their existing rapport or if it was later edited, but the interview frequently felt as if the two were talking past each other rather than to each other. I don't think it added anything that Brathwaite's introduction and explanatory captions of his images lacked.
Overall, it is a book I would recommend, and I hope the photographs travel near me soon so I can see them in person!
Rediscovering Black Portraiture by Peter Bratwaite is both a visually stunning book and a very thought-provoking journey through art history, and history more generally.
At first I thought back to another book from Getty, entitled Off the Walls, which collected many of the images from individuals who accepted the challenge from Getty to reimagine famous artwork using household items. That book was fun and, while some specific images could be used as a springboard into thinking about the production and reception of such art, was largely a collection designed to highlight the creativity these people used. Using the challenge as a common starting point, Brathwaite's volume is more like a single journey that, while still fun, gives us a lot to consider.
The scarcity of Black figures in art, especially as main subjects and not peripheral figures, made the quest to find works to recreate a challenge. The essays and interview with Brathwaite included in the book really adds to the impact. I found the essay that discussed the internet and metadata (my takeaways, the essay wasn't that narrow) very interesting.
As for the recreations, the inclusion of family items ("Granny's patchwork quilt" as an example) served as touchstones to consider the personal elements of both the recreations and of the individuals in the originals. I think his background as an opera singer gave him an ability to inhabit these people in much the same way he would inhabit a character in an opera. I often saw an expression on his face that made me go back and look more closely at the original. I could then, usually, see the emotion that I had missed the first time. And even the times I didn't see the same emotion, I did see more of that subject's humanity and less of just a person in a painting.
I would highly recommend this for everyone from those well-versed in art history to those who simply enjoy art and creativity in general. I think this would be a great book to include in either an art history course or, even better, an interdisciplinary course where some of the historic people and/or periods can be examined through a new lens.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
What a great book full of amazing ideas!
I had seen this challenge on social media in 2020 but didn’t know this author in particular and I’m blown away by his creativity!! The way he selected items available in his house to recreate those paintings were surprising and impressive! Some were beautiful and emotional, others were funny.
I love how the book was divided in 3 parts, and the small explanation behind each painting with who was the person represented and the context. I really enjoyed that there’s an interview of the author at the end and a look behind the scenes of one of his shoot.
If you want to educate yourself while looking at those creative challenges, this book is for you!
I’d recommend to get it as a physical book (not the ebook) though because it will make the reading experience easier: the left page shows the original painting and the right one his reproduction.
Will make a great gift, coffee table book or something to read before bed!
When I began the book I didn’t initially understand the concept… were the comparisons to originals supposed to be funny? Some are. Some make you wonder how the subject was feeling in that time period. You feel yourself moving through the transition of how blacks were depicted in art. In some I felt myself playing “I Spy” as the items used in the raw photos are listed. I found myself asking, “Where did he get these items? Why did he decide to use this here?”. My favorite is the creativity shown in Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo (1623) that has fabric positioned in the form of a woman, quite brilliant. It would have been fun to be along on the journey of making this compilation, a small peak is given with an included interview of the author during Act 2.
I received a complimentary copy of this book. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. #NetGalley #RediscoveringBlackPortraiture
Getty's hardcover editions are always very precious, with interesting text and rich in illustrations. This book is not an exception. It features the author's recreations of black people represented in artworks through history, following a popular trend during COVID lockdown but adding a painfully neglected subject. This not only for racism; as the committant of the original artiworks has been quite always wealthy people, for a long time black figures appared only marginally, for curiosity, but rarely as main subjects.. With time this has changed but the author still testimonies racism in his ambient, so he searched and found a depiction of a French aristocrat of black skin that entitled the author to impersonate him in an opera without having to paint his face white.
As opera singer he is used to change his appearance very often, so he embraces this new hobby with enthusiasm, humor and creativity. The reader can confront the creations with the original artwork. The result is very good sometimes, other times funny, in some cases ridiculous (in my opiinion some representations should have been better left out, as they do not serve the dignity of black people). So we have some creative artwork on its own and some carnevalesque ones of bad taste, as for example the Queen of Shaba).
I have seen a lot of artwork I did not know about but was missing Velázquez's extraordinary Juan de Pareja..
There are rich layers of meaning on every page of this gorgeous book. Each choice made by Peter Braithwaite, from determining which works of classical art to use as a springboard for his work, to his choice of materials to incorporate in his interpretations, is laden with meaning and purpose. Each artwork unfolds multiple directions for further thought and deep-dive research. Those who love Nick Cave's Soundsuits and the stills of Cindy Sherman will find a feast for the mind and the mind's eye here.
This was such an original idea and I loved how it was executed. I loved how Brathwaite recreated each picture so perfectly with things he just had around. I need to buy a coffee table boom of this asap!
“Rediscovering Black Portraiture” is truly unique, it brings in one book deep historical reflection; beautiful rare art; a reflection of life in the global COVID-19 lockdown; and a playfulness and poignancy in the recreation of art from household objects and mementos. I don’t know what I expected, but this was so much more!
As an art history student, I was aware prior to reading this how rare portraits of Black sitters are. It was a delight to see these artworks and explore the context and meaning behind each. These are people who need to be seen and I hope this will create the spark to find more artworks of Black subjects and to tell their stories.
The COVID-19 pandemic was the catalyst for this exploration of Black British opera singer, Peter Brathwaite. In addition to finding and researching these artworks, he recreates them with props from around his home revealing glimpses into his life as well as reflecting how small our own worlds became physically during this period of time. His ingenuity is impressive as he finds ways to capture the mood and message behind the piece. Through his attention to detail, he draws the viewer’s attention to elements of the art that may have otherwise been overlooked. I love finding new artwork to savour and “The King Caspar” by Hendrick Heerschop and “Francis Williams, the scholar of Jamaica” by Unknown Artist are two of my new favourites.
Peter’s creativity and talent shine throughout, I can only imagine what he is like on stage! His storytelling is moving and relevant to so many discussions we are having today. Nestled amongst the artworks are thought-provoking and insightful essays offering viewpoints in addition to those of Peter Brathwaite which add new dimensions.
This book is a gem and I can’t recommend it highly enough! It’s one to enjoy slowly and pick up again and again. It’s a five out of five on the enJOYment scale.
I received a complimentary copy of the book from Getty Publications through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in these reviews are completely my own.
I absolutely jumped at the chance to read this asap, I'd been frustrated at not being able to get to the exhibition of Brathwaite's recreations, but I'm actually glad I had a chance to not only see the recreations but also to absorb the stories behind them.
This is a lovely balance of witty engaging recreations and knowledgable, well researched background information on the originals. As an art history student, it is repeatedly emphasised how we are only learning a small proportion of art history, and that it's overwhelmingly white and eurocentric. This book is a readily accessible source to help start to rebalance that.
My only problem is that the recommended reading list has added a bulk of new books to my TBR..!
I received an advance copy for free from NetGalley, on the expectation that I would provide an honest review.
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