First portrait of freed slave hit with export ban

March 30, 2010 | by | 0 Comments

The Government has banned the export of an historic artwork which features the first-ever portrait of a freed slave.

Culture Minister Margaret Hodge slapped a Temporary Export Bar on the painting of Muslim slave Ayuba Suleiman Diallo after it sold for £555,000 at auction.

The decision was made to give British galleries and museums a chance to raise funds to keep the piece of art, by famous portraitist William Hoare in 1733, inside the country.

The ruling follows a recommendation made by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, held by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA).

Institutions have until May 25th to raise money to buy the ”important” piece, which is the first known portrait of a freed slave ever made by a British artist.

A spokeswoman from the MLA said: ”The portrait is of outstanding aesthetic importance, and also of outstanding significance for the study of both the development of non-European portraiture in Britain and the history of the slave trade.

”Hoare’s painting of Diallo is the earliest British portrait of a freed slave that has so far been identified.

”Portraits of black Africans were rare at this time, and those that do exist usually portray their subjects as anonymous exotica – accessories to enhance the status of their European owners.

”By contrast, Diallo is presented as an individual and an equal, whose dignity, gentleness and intelligence shine out from the canvas.”

The portrait, sold privately through Christie’s Auction House for £554,937.50 just before Christmas and was at risk of being taken overseas before the ban was imposed on Friday March 26.

It was painted by William Hoare, who lived in Bath and was the portraitist to Prime Ministers and aristocrats as well as the co-founder of the Royal Academy.

In 1733, in the early stages of his career, he was asked to paint an African slave who had become a ”fascinating star” amongst the British aristocracy.

Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon, was a wealthy, well-educated Muslim from present-day Senegal who himself was a slave trader before he was captured and sent to work on a tobacco plantation in Maryland, in the United States.

His high-born status enabled him to escape captivity and travel to England where he was released from slavery through money raised by public subscription.

He developed celebrity status amongst the elite of London society, mixing with aristocrats and even being presented at court.

After a short time in England, Diallo entered the services of the Royal African Company and returned to Africa on the understanding that, in return for his redemption, he would further English interests there.

The painting shows Diallo sitting facing the artist with his arms resting in his lap, in the conventions of European portraiture, but wearing his native dress and with a Koran hanging from a ribbon around his neck.

Lord Inglewood, Chairman of the Reviewing Committee, added: ”This is a beautiful and sensitive portrait of an engaging personality.

”As well as being important for the study of non-European portraiture in Britain, it also illustrates the complexities of the issues surrounding the slave trade and Britain’s role in it.”

Diallo’s memoirs were published in Thomas Bluett’s Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, and had a profound impact on Britain’s understanding of West African culture, identity and religion.

Despite being a slave-owner and trader himself, he was upheld by English abolitionists as an argument for the humane treatment of Africans.

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