Paint it Black, then and now

8th December 1995 at 00:00
Sir Joshua Reynolds's "A Young Black", almost certainly a portrait of Dr Johnson's highly esteemed manservant and principal heir, Francis Barber, is an exceptional image. Painted in the 1770s, when slavery was still acceptable, it not only depicts Barber as an autonomous being but elevates him, forcing the viewer to look up to his far-reaching gaze.

Within the formal vocabulary of 18th century portraiture, this is a pose reserved for aristocrats and heroes and stands in opposition to the ingratiatingly submissive African prince being civilised by a European and Christian monarch in Thomas Jones Barker's blatantly imperialistic "Queen Victioria presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor Castle", a picture painted long after slavery was abolished.

But the exhibition "Picturing Blackness in British Art" offers neither easy polarisation nor progressive reconciliation. However much the black coachman and reveller in Benjamin Haydon's 1829 "Punch or May Day" suggest that immigrants were both more numerous and more integrated than is generally supposed, present day images of blacks by blacks are far from reassuring.

The two stalwart black women navigating their boat in Lubaina Himid's "Between the Two My Heart is Balanced" are threatened by a very rough sea, and loss of identitiy is so overwhelming in Soia Boyce's "From Tarzan to Rambo" that she very nearly scribbles out of recognition an otherwise very clear sequence of photographic self-portraits.

With only 14 exhibits, this very manageable and long-running show is a gift to enterprising teachers across a wide range of subjects. It could very easily provide the starting point for a cross-curricular project on public and pesonal identity.

Picturing Blackness in British Art from 1760 to the 1990s, Tate Gallery, London, until March 10 1996. Tel: 0171-887 8000.

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