European old master paintings reexamined under a fresh take on blackness and slavery

In “European old master paintings reexamined in New York under a fresh take on blackness and slavery,” Alexandra Bregman (Forbes) writes about how leading art institutions around the world are recontextualizing European old master paintings in the framework of the previous erasure of blackness. [Shown above: “Juan de Pareja” (ca. 1608–1670) by Spanish artist Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (aka Diego Velázquez), 1650. The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art will open the exhibition “Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter” on April 3, 2023.]

Across the world’s finest art institutions and most prized collections, a number of exhibitions are recontextualizing what makes an old master painting. Erasure of Blackness in the Western art historical canon has been a source of anguish mentioned by many Black artists working today, such as Adebumni Gbadebo, who recently exhibited a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art concurrently to a Claire Oliver, and Simone Elizabeth Saunders, who has a show coming up March 17th.

Over just the last few months, places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art are consciously working to change perspectives on some of the same works of art that have previously felt exclusionary. Court painter Diego Velazquez is known for his Las Meñinas portrait of the Spanish royals, but also for his assistant, friend, fellow artist, and slave Juan de Pareja. Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter opens April 3rd, with insights included by the late Harlem Renaissance scholar Arturo A. Schomburg.

On February 27th (closing just days before the Metropolitan showcase, on March 30th), Ten True Stories of Dutch Colonial Slavery from the Rijksmuseum traveled to the United Nations.

As indicated in the title, the Rijksmuseum show takes 10 true stories from the 17th to the 19th century, when Dutch slavery was abolished. Spanning the colonial Dutch empire in Brazil, Suriname and the Caribbean, as well as in South Africa, Asia and in the Netherlands itself, the stories are anchored by a single object called a tronco, or a wooden foot stock used as punishment and constraint.

Originally shown in Amsterdam in 2021, the Visitors’ Lobby is dedicated to the art as part of the United Nations Outreach Programme on the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery, largely sponsored by the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the UN and the Dutch diplomatic mission in the United States. It is reported to be the first exhibition on slavery in Dutch history. Discourse with American and Caribbean experts is included in the program at its closing, then travel around the UN until December 2024.

The rawness and sorrow of traumatic histories is challenged by contemporary artists, however. [. . .]

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