Two-time Booker Shortlistee and internationally bestselling author Esi Edugyan delivers a searing analysis of the relationship between race and art.
‘A remarkable set of essays unlike anything else’ – Kadish Morris, Guardian
As in her fiction, the essays in Out of the Sun demonstrate Esi Edugyan’s commitment to seeking out the stories of Black lives that history has failed to record. Written with the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the background, in five wide-ranging essays Edugyan reflects on her own identity and experiences as the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants.
She delves into the history of Western Art and the truths about Black lives that it fails to reveal, and the ways contemporary Black artists are reclaiming and reimagining those lives. She explores and celebrates the legacy of Afrofuturism, the complex and problematic practice of racial passing, the place of ghosts and haunting in the imagination, and the fascinating relationship between Africa and Asia dating back to the 6th Century.
With calm, piercing intelligence, and a refusal to think on anyone’s terms but her own, Edugyan asks difficult questions about how we reckon with the past and imagine the future, and invites the reader to think alongside her in working out what the answers to these may be.
Europe and the Art of Seeing
Many years ago, I found myself in the overstuffed halls of Scone Palace in Scotland. I’d been living some hours away, in a castle perched above the great Midlothian fields to the south, a guest at a writers’ residency. I wanted to see more of the country before I had to leave it. The castle I’d been living at had had an air both calm and frantic. The days were lazy, open, shaped only by a sprawling evening meal shared between the residents. During the afternoons, no one was allowed to speak, to avoid disturbing others. I would walk the grounds with a fellow Canadian, a lovely writer from an island on our East coast who, as a connoisseur of human absurdity, told outrageous stories as we crossed fields as pristine and uninhabited as some imagine the outer planets to be. I adored it there but it was frustrating too – the silence was broken by the phone ringing at every hour, the castle’s Dame calling to check up on the residency’s steward, a thin, hassled man with an explosion of tawny curls who ran about in a state of panic and subservience, terrified that at any moment she might, like a figure of nightmare, leap from a closed cupboard. There were the little skirmishes between the writers, the little jealousies and romances. It is churlish, I know, to complain about staying in a castle. But it was with some relief – and some sadness as well – that I set out north.
Scone Palace was another world. One approached it in much the same way one creeps towards a mirage, with a sense it is possibly fraudulent. Built in the Georgian Gothic style, it was a dark, hulking mass high above the River Tay. At the heart of its gardens lay an exquisite maze; I have always had a terror and an attraction to mazes, drawn by their complications but knowing that to enter them with my sense of direction is to risk having the search party called out. The interiors of the Palace were as lavish as its exterior walls were stark, the rooms filled with lush velvet chairs, blue-and-gold silk rugs, draperies and mantles and chandeliers that spoke of aristocratic Georgian excess. Passing through the Gothic library into the Ambassador’s room, I was surprised by a portrait of two very elegant young women. It was for many reasons unusual, not the least because one of the sitters was a Black, or bi-racial, woman.
The piece, painted in 1778, was until the 1990s referred to as simply the portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray. The presence of her darker companion, though central, was completely overlooked. Variously attributed to the German neoclassical painter Johan Zoffany and the British artist Joshua Reynolds, the painting is now been believed to be the work of Scottish artist David Martin, based on the style, the clothing, and the sitters’ gestures. In the portrait, which has an air of arresting strangeness to it, Lady Elizabeth is dressed in a muted pink and white gown, her porcelain skin rouged, her expression full of warmth and mischief, her pale hand holding a book as a sign of her intellect. To her left, as if captured mid-stride, is Dido Elizabeth Belle, the young woman of colour. She was in fact Lady Elizabeth’s cousin, the two motherless girls raised together. She too looks mischievous and happy, but her movement marks her as physically irrepressible against Elizabeth’s restraint. Her station is further marked by the platter of fruit she is carrying for her mistress, and by the soft outstretched grip of Lady Elizabeth’s hand on her wrist – a gesture of affection, yes, but also seemingly one of possession. On Belle’s head she wears a white turban with a feather, a stand-in for the “Oriental,” the exotic. These signal her unbreakable link to the world of the “Other.”
The renowned scholar Edward Said described the Orient as “the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.” For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, the idea of the Orient was set up in opposition to European ideals of rationality, civilization and modernity. Because much of what was then considered “the Orient” was partly located in Northern Africa, a transference got made: any African or person of African descent could be linked to notions of Orientalism. From this transference emerged the figure of the Moor. The Moor was not at first an actual Black person, but a watery, elusive, generalized North African figure without a fixed racial identity. By the 19th century, however, she became more deeply grounded in her Blackness, though still carrying faint strains of the far-East.
Slavery had long been a feature of European expansionism, from the Barbarian invasions of the Roman empire to enslavement in the eastern Mediterranean and Russia. Most of these slaves were white. This changed with the shift towards Africa in the mid-1400s. More than twelve million people left sub-Saharan Africa, some passing through the Middle East and North Africa before being shipped to the colonies. The Atlantic trade continued for nearly four hundred years, changing the character of every place it touched. This included the physical makeup of many nations’ populations. From the 15th century onward, the Black presence became more pronounced throughout Europe, particularly in port cities. As a result of this increased visibility, Blacks began to appear more frequently in art. Due to their condition as slaves, their representation was usually in some way linked to this reality. This is not to say that the people depicted are always images of living breathing figures; they only rarely derive from actual sitters, or public figures. Rather, they are visual manifestations of an idea of Blackness, an idea informed by slavery.
The European relationship to slavery was very different from its American counterpart. In England, for example, where riches poured in from the colonies to build great cities and underwrite upper-class lives, few Englishmen had any real contact with slavery beyond the knowledge of its existence as something going on “over there.” Very few Englishmen settled in the colonies to run plantations; instead planters employed proxies, “overseers,” to run things, living distant, comfortable lives across the waters.
And so portraiture of Blacks was tied to an imagined idea of Black people, and of all that Blackness could suggest. The African became a stand-in for the expression a multitude of conflicting beliefs and ideas. A Black face could be used to symbolize the darkness of the non-Christian world, or conversely, to signify the spread of Christianity throughout the continents. It could be one thing, or its opposite, or both at the same time, the conflicting meanings left to coexist.
It is slaves living in grand houses rather than those living on plantations who are most present in portraiture from the 16th to the late 18th centuries. They appear in so-called “grand-manner” paintings, in which the wealthy are pictured in idealized settings, meant to emphasize and capture that status for all eternity. To have a portrait painted was, whatever other impulses informed it, an expression of power. And in these portraits, Black servants are often shown staring adoringly up at their masters, their heads wound in colourful turbans and robes whose brightness make an obvious contrast against the more sober and elegant clothes of their betters. In the Academy, colour was believed to appeal to the senses and was measured against drawing, which was thought to appeal to the intellect. This dichotomy between wildness and reason was seen to govern the races, too, according to Enlightenment era theory. And so passionate colours were tied to passionate people, while a lack of colour expressed civility and intelligence.
In his extravagant dress, a Black pageboy became the literal embodiment of his master’s riches, his servitude sometimes made clear by a silver ring in his ear or a silver collar around his neck. Black musicians and court performers also served to express this wealth. They are fantasias of slave life, implying a satisfaction with one’s lowly role, and the implicit superiority of the master or mistress, whose dignified bearing cannot help but instill deference. The images glorified a world so far divorced from the penury of plantation labour, from the brutalities of the transatlantic voyage, that the gulf is astonishing.
There also lived in Europe many people of African descent who were not slaves. Many children from mixed-race relationships been taken to England, and this is the group to which Dido Elizabeth Belle belonged. Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Maria Belle, a probable African slave, who was captured from a Spanish ship in the West Indies by her father, Rear Admiral Sir John Lindsay, nephew of the most powerful judge in the country, Lord Mansfield. After the death of her mother when she was six years old, Belle’s father took her to England to be raised in Lord Mansfield’s home in a manner befitting their rank. Lady Elizabeth had also been sent to live at Kenwood after the loss of her own mother, so that the two girls must have shared what I imagine was a sense of blind-siding devastation mixed with shocking good luck, a feeling of forced renunciation that was a both a relief and something to resent. And yet, though the details remain somewhat obscure, it’s said that the positions they occupied in the household were very different. Lady Elizabeth – pale-skinned, light-eyed – was in all respects treated as the vulnerable family member she was. Belle’s lot was murkier. She was not quite sister, not quite servant, asked only sometimes to dine with guests; only when the plates were scraped and the coffees drained was she invited to sit with the ladies and take a turn about the gardens with them. An American expatriate in London, Francis Hutchison, described with surprise the sight of Belle walking arm in arm with her cousin. He seemed uneasy at the affection with which the great judge himself treated “the Black,” and he was not the only one.
Some felt that Lord Mansfield had allowed his love for Belle to cloud his judgment. In 1772, he made a landmark ruling in the case of the runaway slave James Somerset; in it, he decreed that a master could not take a slave out of Britain by force. This ruling was largely viewed as a key piece of legislation in the eventual abolishment of the slave trade. A recent biographer of Lord Mansfield has suggested that the great judge was less anti-slavery crusader than someone who disliked slavery but was reluctant to annoy slave owners or appear to threaten their financial interests, and that he hoped things could carry on as they’d been. And yet Mansfield made the ruling as he did, in full awareness of the shockwaves it would send through English society. We will never know how much his love for Dido played into this decision that would reshape the modern world.