Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe, The African Choir. London Stereoscopic Company, 1891.  Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe, The African Choir. London Stereoscopic Company, 1891. Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

How can you tell what is missing from the past? Black Chronicles II, an exhibition curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy, asks that question in relation to the lack of representations of black and Asian people in Britain during the 19th and early 20th century.

The exhibition fills Rivington Place in Shoreditch with studio portraiture of men, women and children who were brought to Britain from across the British Empire. Careful research and archival excavation has gone into a large and expansive display of material ranging over two floors, and its central materials are augmented carefully by the use of more contemporary reflections on race and the archive.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a set of startling new prints of the members of The African Choir, a group that toured Britain between 1891 and 1893, and their large-scale portraits fill an entire wall of the gallery. These newly discovered photographs from the London Stereoscopic Company at the Hulton Archive (a division of Getty Images), have been unseen for over one hundred and twenty years, and are striking and beautiful flashes of a different time. It would have been wonderful to know more about the exact journey of this group, as they remain largely unknowable from the images presented.

Upstairs, in what feels like the heart of the exhibition, more than one hundred original cabinet cards and cartes-de-visite are displayed, along with a laminated book of extended captions to be read alongside the images. The room is filled with the voice of Stuart Hall, the cultural theorist who lends his name to the building’s library, and enhanced by the presence of Effnik (1997), a work by Yinka Shonibare, a modern take on the kind of portraiture seen throughout the exhibition.

The tiny cards that line the walls and their captions offer touching insights into the experience of people coming from Britain’s vast empire. Two African boys flank an imposing vicar in a card detailing the ‘Congo House for African Children’, in Colwyn Bay, Wales. But the insensitivity of some images, and the crude sensationalism of pictures advertising ‘Farini’s Friendly Zulus’ or showing ‘Hindoo Conquerors’ are undone by the exhibition’s determination to present the stories behind the anonymous figures in the pictures.

Instead of looking at a nameless face, the captions explain that the image is of Hindu philosopher and social reformer Keshub Chunder Sen, or Samuel Crowther, the first African Anglican Bishop, or the abolitionist Sultan of Zanzibar Bargash Bin Said.

The dignity of identity has been restored to these images, and they are not faceless, nameless or without story. They are placed within a context of history; they are present and not ignored. As I looked at these pictures, Stuart Hall, in the recorded lecture that plays in the room, made the point that we are all products of “an uneven history”. By looking at these pictures, and working to understand why they appear unfamiliar, we begin to understand the nature of that uneven history a little more.

Black Chronicles II is at Autograph ABP, Rivington Place, EC2A 3BA until 29 November.

The above image is part of Black Chronicles II, a new exhibition exploring black presences in 19th and early 20th century in Britain, presented by Autograph ABP at Rivington Place, London, 12 September – 29 November, 2014. Curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy. Produced in collaboration with the Hulton Archive, a division of Getty Images; and other partners. Original research supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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