Re-presentation, race and disability: How are Black disabled people represented in important classic art?

I had few assumptions to go on in this exploration. But luckily for me a whole raft of work specifically on the subject has been carried out and summarised with a website dedicated to the series – see here. What I found was that Black people were included in much older western art and I had not expected that and their representation was as diverse as that afforded white people. Take these three images as examples:

  • St Maurice from a painted panel from Wiener Neustadt Austria, 1447  here
  • Portrait of Juan de Pareja, 1650 – here
  • Two Africans by Rembrant 1661 – here

Here all the representation recognises these Black men as having identities beyond colour.

Further reading suggests that as time has moved on the Black man has become increasingly represented as a symbol for oppression because of Blackness being so associated with slavery in western consciousness. The statement suggests that slavery changed everything in terms of defining Black people and their visual representation. Yet there is variety even in that imagery. For example, Richard Ansdell’s The Hunted Slaves (1862) offers the viewer an allegory of the politics of slavery. The Black slave is presented as impoverished and under attack while being noble, strong, protecting and brave in fending off the savage dogs themselves representing the terrible system of enslavement.

So just in my cursory exploration I think I can see that that Black man was represented in a variety of way before modern western slavery took place but that contextual change resulted in much imagery representing the Black man symbolically

But what about Black disabled people?
The subject of Black and disabled appears to be largely absent in terms of representation in classic art, without my finding any mention of disabled black people in The Image of the Black in Western Art series of books. But I did find some representations from the 19th Century. For example, the many paintings of the British Royal Navy included representations of Black sailors – see here and amongst them are images of black disabled sailors.

Last year I experimented with representing myself as a man of colour and questioned the ethics of it – see here. But as with most of the representations seen so far there was no hint of impairment or disability in those shots. My next action will be to took at if and how Black disabled people are represented in 19C popular art and photography?


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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