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Interview - Issue #10

Voice of An Ancestor

Kendall Francis, a conservation fellow at the National Gallery in London, UK, is researching the legacies of colonialism, slavery and exploitation in artists’ materials. She has started with the ancestral stories of the gallery’s paintings and what they reveal about colonial indigo plantations. The blue dye and pigment, which is extracted from the leaves of plants, is used and represented in a number of the gallery’s works. Artist, educator and researcher Christina Peake hears how Kendall’s research reveals histories that are not explicitly portrayed in the paintings and highlights the important contributions from a wider range of people, including the enslaved people who cultivated the crops and extracted the indigo against their will.

Christine: The work that you’re doing resonates with me so deeply. My mother was from the Caribbean, from Barbados, and my father was white British. One of the things that you discuss in your research is that you very rarely ever see characters that look like you in the artworks. I grew up visiting the National Gallery as a child. My father would take me and I saw him, as a white male, everywhere. How do you feel about this opportunity to share these extraordinary histories and stories about our diverse communities and how that links to those ancestral stories as well?

Kendall: For me, unfortunately, I didn’t grow up coming to the National Gallery. I only went to a gallery when I was around 16 or 17 - I went to the British Museum. I cried in front of the Parthenon Marbles because I’d never seen anything like that in my life. I’d only ever seen it through books.

And then it was going to university and studying a joint honours degree in fine art and art history, and then subsequently my postgrad is when I started being immersed fully within different art environments. And that’s when I realised that even in the spaces where people are deciding about artworks and making decisions about how we display, label and disseminate the information about our cultural heritage - a lot of the time I was the only brown person in the room.

The National Gallery has the Legacies of British Slave-ownership research project that’s explaining these histories and how the transatlantic slave trade has had [a role] in the history of the gallery. Redressing the colonial heritage and history of our institutions and of our artworks is the most important thing - for all of us as a nation to understand our history. But also, it can be a bit heavy and a bit miserable for black and ethnic minority people to just see themselves as their history with the transatlantic slave trade.

What I’ve been trying to do is include the positives and celebrate black history. [For instance,] the Haitian Revolution, which is one of the most important [moments] in [black] history. That’s such an inspirational, celebratory moment of black uprising and power and it’s what we need to celebrate more.

The Comte de Vaudreuil by Francois-Hubert Drouais (1758) The Comte was only 18 when he posed for this portrait. He is dressed in a beautiful indigo dyed velvet, but when we look closer a troubling legacy reveals itself: he is pointing to the French colony of Saint-Domingue, where thousands of west African enslaved people were trafficked to work the land, and where his family’s fortunes were amassed. The Comte was the son of the governor and commander-general of Saint-Domingue. By 1713 the island’s largest and most profitable export was indigo. Extracting the dye was a complicated and labour-intensive task, which is why west African people, who had been skilled in creating and using the dye for centuries, were trafficked. But it was also a deadly process as the fumes killed considerable numbers of enslaved people.The only successful slave revolution to happen was in Saint Domingue, and one of its leaders, Julien Raimond, was an indigo planter himself. After the French withdrawal in the early 19th century the country declared independence as Haiti, its Indigenous name.Francois-Hubert Drouais, The Comte de Vaudreuil, C. 1758 © The National Gallery, London.

‘The fact that women were the ones that were skilled in indigo making gives a whole different aspect to the research. There are very few celebrated black figures and most of them are men.’

Christine: With reference to Yoruba culture, your research discusses the way in which the enslaved peoples may have been targeted for specific skill sets, which is not something you hear very often. Can you talk about that traditional practice?

Kendall: One of the things that I found is indigo wasn’t just an important commodity for the western colonial powers, but for enslaved Africans and also for Afro-Caribbeans and people to this day that still have that heritage of Yoruba culture, it was also a thing of faith and devotion and skill and talent of centuries of black people working the earth, using this plant, using it in rituals, using it in such incredible ways.

The Yoruba culture celebrated the goddess called Iya Mapo, who was the goddess of dyeing. Dyers were mostly women and the weavers were men. The fact that women were the ones that were skilled in indigo making gives a whole different aspect to the research. There are very few celebrated black figures and most of them are men. Finding the link to black women, and connecting their skill and talent to paintings and artworks that traditionally exclude and dehumanise them, is just really important.

My research will be moving into the colonisation of west India - moving on to those stories and those people and to celebrate Bengali culture. The artist Johann Zoffany actually travelled to west India to paint a horrific man called Warren Hastings - the first governor of Bengal. Zoffany travelled with one of his friends who settled there and opened an indigo plantation. So Zoffany himself must have understood the kind of production and origin of these materials that he and all the other artists were using and where they were coming from.

Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs, attributed to Anthony van Dyck (c. 1620)This picture of Silenus - in Roman myth, the teacher and mentor of Bacchus, the god of wine - came from Peter Paul Rubens’s studio in Antwerp and it seems to have been a joint effort by several young artists working there. But the superb rendering of Silenus’ bloated, happy face and the folds and bulges of his solid, glowing flesh strongly suggest that they were painted by the young Anthony van Dyck.Théodore de Mayerne (1573-1655) compiled writings and observations on painting and the technology and chemistry of art, now commonly known as The Mayerne Manuscript. Two artists that contributed to this document were Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens, the latter of whom painted Mayerne’s portrait. The document states the fugitive nature of indigo and the need to acquire the best quality, mentioning indigo from Guatemalan regions. Guatemala was colonised by the Spanish and trade with England and Holland saw these countries become significant consumers of Guatemalan Indigo. Therefore, the indigo used in the paintings by van Dyck or Rubens may have originated from these sources.ATTR. Anthony van Dyck, Drunken Silenus supported by Satyrs, about 1620 © The National Gallery, London.

‘I would also like to make links with modern day appropriation of black and ethnic minorities and how you can see that some companies and industries still have these unchanging exploitive procedures.’

Christine: I wonder if you could share a little bit about the origin and significance of the different pigments?

Kendall: A painting is a three-dimensional object made up of a vast number of materials. These materials that can tell us about the artists’ choices, their techniques and methods, but they also shape and reflect larger social, political and economic forces, with their own stories to tell. Many of the organic materials will share the colonial histories of countries like Spain, which colonised and appropriated the land and material of South and Central America, especially Guatemala, which is where they put the indigo plantations. And they also took cochineal (small soft bodied insects used to make carmine dye) from there.

There’s a material called mummy brown - made from grinding up the remains of Egyptian mummies. Some artists, when they found out, did have an understanding of the kind of brutality of where the materials come from and when the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones found where mummy brown came from, he got all of his mummy brown pigment and he did a significant ritual burial for this colour in his back garden, because it’s a person.

There are many other materials with these colonial connections; from the wood and canvas supports to the oils, resins and varnishes to the gold and precious stones to other inorganic pigments; and my long-term personal project intends to identify these legacies and investigate the historical, colonial connections in each material. This will include contemporary examples, for instance pigments that use cobalt: we know that today there are extremely brutal and terrible issues surrounding the mining of cobalt in African countries. So I would also like to make links with modern day appropriation of black and ethnic minorities and how you can see that some companies and industries still have these unchanging exploitive procedures.

But my main aim for the project is to focus on the histories of people rather than shining a light on exploitative things today, to show that the contributions of people that aren’t visible within the paintings, and the history of people that aren’t visible within the paintings, are still within the materials.

I had a message from a man who lives on the island of Saint John in the US Virgin Islands. He found an indigo plant, that isn’t native to the country, growing near his house and realised that the land used to be an indigo plantation. He decided to cultivate the crop and then started to figure out the process of making this green plant into this really deep, intense blue dye, and is now dying his wife’s knitted items. And the part of the story that I really think is important is the fact that he asked around the native people of St John whose ancestors obviously had come to the island through the transatlantic slave trade, and none of them knew that the land had been a plantation. Their ancestors would have been cultivating indigo for centuries, a massive part of their faith and culture, and the islanders no longer had the skills. He’s now teaching native St John people how to make indigo again, which I just think is such a wonderful way of returning skill and talent to a people that have forgotten.

Mrs Oswald by Johann Zoffany (about 1763-4)Mrs Oswald was the only child of Alexander Ramsay, a Glasgow-born merchant who settled in Jamaica, acquiring plantations there and in the South American colonies. Although indigo may not have been the pigment explicitly used to paint her clothing - it could be Prussian blue - she is wearing a fine indigo-dyed dress. Not just to highlight her wealth and status, but because Mrs Oswald herself succeeded to her father’s estates and those of her two uncles, owning indigo plantations in Jamaica where over 100 enslaved people were forced to work.Born Mary Ramsay, in November 1750 she married Richard Oswald, a Scottish entrepreneur, merchant, shipowner and slave trader. He was the main owner of Bunce Island in Sierra Leone, the most significant slave trading outpost for the British on the west African coast, trading in slaves that were skilled in rice and indigo planting. The commissioning of the work was made possible through the personal wealth that Mary and Richard Oswald gained through the slave trade.Johann Zoffany, Mrs Oswald, about 1763-4 © The National Gallery, London.

‘Even just focusing on one colour can truly change and challenge what we are looking at and how we are understanding paintings.’

Christine: I think that’s fascinating because it reflects not only the diasporic history, but also the diasporic relevance today.

Kendall: I did a talk last year and someone from America asked me about the fact that the only thing they know about themselves is that they’re black and that they don’t know where their culture is from. They don’t know where their ancestors came from. And I think what I love about being part of the black community is that it’s all our heritage. We share in everything. And I think that is something that is really special.

Christine: Absolutely. I do think that your work itself and what you’re describing is ancestral. It’s ancestral with a future gaze as well – providing histories, providing narratives – providing a sense of belonging - reducing feelings of isolation – and I think that’s a really incredible endeavour. What’s it like working with these paintings? How does that ancestral link resonate, and if it does in what capacity?

Kendall: I think sometimes it’s quite obvious when the links to a painting are controversial. There’s an organisation that started in America called Museums Are Not Neutral and this has led to Conservation Is Not Neutral. It’s about the importance of having diverse voices within these environments to understand that some things might not need to be displayed, while some things do need to be displayed but in a sensitive and very informed environment.

As a conservator we look at painting so differently because we have the science, we have the analytical technology, we have the art history side, and the practical side of actually treating the paintings and getting so close to them. We think about what the artist wanted to portray; what was the meaning that has been lost in this tiny bit?

We have this multifaceted way of approaching artworks, researching artworks and understanding how an artist has created something, what they’ve made it from and why. So doing this research and understanding that my ancestors and their centuries of contributions are all within these materials - it makes me feel a lot closer to the artworks.

I’ve always thought about what the artist would have thought about us restoring their artworks. What would this artist, who was making art work in a time when someone that looks like me who would have been their servant or an enslaved person, what would they think about me touching their painting? Such feelings are something I am going to have to navigate for the rest of my career when working on my preferred subject of old master paintings.

What if I worked on Francois-Hubert Drouais image of The Comte de Vaudreuil, who owned plantations in Saint Domingue? Or Zoffany’s image of Mary Oswald, who inherited and owned indigo plantations in Jamaica? Both of these portraits are in the National Gallery. The people that looked like me would have been people enslaved on their plantations. And I can’t help but wonder what kind of thoughts they would have of me restoring their portraits?

Even just focusing on one colour can truly change and challenge what we are looking at and how we are understanding paintings. And indigo is used and identified throughout the National Gallery collection from Tintoretto to Van Dyck to Turner and all these images hold and exemplify these untold and forgotten histories and legacies.

Highlighting and sharing these histories is incredibly important for diverse audiences that walk around the galleries and don’t explicitly see themselves represented in the pictures so that they are able to find a part of their history, connect with a painting, and possibly find the voice of an ancestor.

Kendall Francis retouching The Assumption of the Virgin by Matteo di Giovanni (c.1474) in the National Gallery’s Conservation Studio. PHOTOGRAPH © The National Gallery, London.

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