- Please introduce yourself.
In the context of this exchange I would introduce myself as Joaneath Spicer, the James A. Murnaghan Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (PhD, Yale university). Like most curators in art museums, I work on a variety of smaller and larger projects, ones marked as institutional priorities and others generated by myself, encompassing a wide range of topics and approaches as applicable to the collections for which I have responsibility.
2. You did research for a book related to the representation of blacks in paintings during the Renaissance. How did you go about approaching that project? What methodologies did you use?
Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, now available as a free, downloadable ebook on the Walters website, did indeed involve the representation of people of African ancestry (not the same things as “blacks”) in 16th-century Europe, and the imposing beauty and expressive power of really good works of art–paintings, but also sculpture, drawings, and prints–in the exhibition was of critical importance in conveying the message. Nevertheless, as I discuss in the introduction, my intention was to validate the lives of people of African ancestry in Europe and not to focus on the image as representation per se. It was my contention that works of art had been insufficiently interrogated as evidence or points of departure for assembling evidence on individual people, often otherwise unknown. A painting could be a surface or it could serve as a window that encourages engagement. This was a new approach and I initially had trouble getting listeners to grasp the idea that there really were large numbers of Africans in Europe and that their representation in the art of the period were not just conventional stock images, as some had claimed. I had been pleased to contribute an essay to the well-known series The Image of the Black in Western Art but in the introduction of the Walters catalogue I pressed the point that this project was not about images of Africans but about Africans living in Europe, thus for example not about the evolution of the depiction of the Three Kings so as to include one African but about teasing out at least some basic details on the life of the man who was the model for the African king in a given painting. I was writing about Africans to people of African ancestry as my primary audience. To focus on the images simply as images made me uneasy as it involved a form of objectification. In addition, from the beginning I wanted to step away from generalizations as a starting point. How often have African American writers or artists expressed a version of the thought: don’t look at my skin, look at ME. Exactly.
I realize that you are interested in cultural perceptions, agency, and status in the past and present of “blacks”. Many scholars define their subject in the same way. Nevertheless I wanted to shift the focus to the larger group, Africans in Europe, therefore including North Africans who would have defined themselves as “white Moors.” In the 1500s North Africa was a big part of the story, rendering it at once more complicated and more nuanced, encompassing both Leo Africanus and the largest slave trading center of the time at Algiers.
3. What got you interested in that research?
Initially a query from the public suggesting that I should look into the black ancestry of the little girl in our Pontormo portrait, which we now call Maria Salviati and Giulia de’Medici, and a portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici in Philadelphia. I was in the middle of an immense installation project and it was some time before I followed up on the Philadelphia painting and on the referenced publication but when I did, it became clear that there was indeed reason to think that the child in our painting was of African ancestry. Then, as often happens after you first focus on an issue, I began to see Africans seemingly everywhere in Renaissance art. I attended a conference at Oxford that inspired me by the multiplicity of academic disciplines addressing cogent issues around black Africans in Europe but was also forcibly struck by the fact that issues and perspectives that were common in academia would not work for a public exhibition in Baltimore, which would necessarily be the goal, were I to propose a large-scale research project. An exhibition would be very difficult; any missteps reverberate. Please keep in mind that large-scale research projects in the museum world are inherently institutional, as they are not in academia.
[This is what got me interested in the research, but what made me push through all the setbacks, difficulties and challenges were traumatic memories engraved in my brain of the desegregation of my school in Winston Salem, North Carolina when I was about 13. 1 black teenage girl and 1000 white students. I don’t think that I could have done what she did, but I could do this.]
4. What did you discover about the representation of blacks in Italian Renaissance?
Many of my real discoveries did not involve Italy, as it is a geographical area of study in which more work had been done by others in the field, though rarely by Italians, which is puzzling. An example of my work on the representation of blacks in the Italian Renaissance would be assembling evidence that Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, really was black. There had been a wide-spread assumption among Renaissance scholars in general that the notion that he was born of an African slave was just a fabricated story. It became clear that during his lifetime Alessandro had controlled his public image, which involved hazing over his features or reshaping them to echo those of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. I identified a particularly fine and carefully detailed portrait that was done after his death on the basis of an earlier study from life. In this fabulous portrait by Pontormo (Uffizi), which at the time of my research was virtually never on view, Alessandro was a black man. So the one portrait of him “from life” that was not under his control quietly and without fanfare depicted him accurately. I also found descriptions of him written after his death that acknowledged his color.
5. What can the study of the representation of the black body in the Italian Renaissance tell us about the imaginary of blacks today?
That the issues are often more localized than generalizations would suggest.
In the 1500s the representation of the black body, regardless of whether frankly aesthetic or frankly a personification of sin or carnality was a white male European creation. Today in the US
it is anything but a white male creation. The significance of the shift in ownership of the perspective is immense.
6. The representation of blacks (as in black sin) the Renaissance often plays with the fine line between the animal world and the human world. Do you think those kinds of representations play a role in today’s discourses of racial interiority/inferiority?
I am probably not the best or even a useful person to address “today’s discourses of racial inferiority.” Nevertheless, it is certainly so that in the Renaissance attaching animal features to Africans or anyone else was a naked gesture to imply animalistic/lesser characteristics.
7) Renaissance art in Italy took place at a time when Italy was in a central position in the economic network of international relations. Now the US plays that role. Do you see the self-representation of blacks in the arts in the US influencing their representation in other parts of the world? Have the contributions to art from black majority nations in Africa made a dent in the representation of blacks in other nations?
Interesting question but my perspective is limited, and I addressed this in a separate email.
8. Do you think that art and museums are now part of the world of the elites? Are other art forms like music and film more accessible as a way to change the imaginary of blacks in the popular realm?
Decades ago in the US and Europe one could have said that the primary constituents for art (whether of the work of art or the museum experience) were from “the world of the elites” in terms of wealth or education. This is much less true in the US today. The number of exhibitions, mounted by the whole range of spaces from small historically black colleges, dealers, museums like the Walters, or finally the Metropolitan Museum, featuring current African American artists or the arts of Africa is extraordinary. I don’t really see this phenomenon in Italy and will leave it at that. My personal scale would be that music, the most accessible of all, was the leader some decades ago in the US, but now film has demonstrated far greater potential by taking on more important and emotionally engaging subjects that can attract a wide audience. Art, with a smaller “fan base” may be less accessible but instead of telling a story that celebrates and humanizes mastery, creativity, intelligence or whatever, it IS mastery and intelligence. It’s an exciting time for African American artists, especially painters.
Returning to Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, one of my major goals was to shift perception as to what was open to frank discussion in regard to race in the 1500s in Europe, thereby by extension easing the way for discussions among academics, educators, students and the general public about current perspectives. I have reason to think we were successful. Thousands have downloaded the catalogue since the show closed.
9. How has your research changed your perspective on the imaginary of blacks?
It has confirmed my tendency to focus on the individual.
10. In Italy we have a writer and intellectual who has compared the history of the representation of blacks in paintings to the condition of blacks and migrants. That was a way to work with the new imaginary in a very direct way. Is it the same in the U.S?
I don’t see where this question is going. In any case, my perception would be that circumstances are very different in the US than in Italy, compounding the difficulty of answering the question. For example: there is indeed a tendency in the US to focus on an ethnic group in connection with immigration, but it isn’t blacks but Latinos.
Overall, as you can see, I have reservations about generalizations made from 20,000 meters. I generally do my best work on the ground.
11. What role can artists and critics play in issues like blacks, migrant, diversity and rights?
For this you could better ask artists and critics. Museums in the US can and do play major roles in this regard. As an historian of art and a museum curator I can say that my colleagues and I at The Walters are always on the lookout for good exhibition, acquisition, or programming possibilities that encourage public engagement with race, gender, and migrant status. An early step in a general campaign to accentuate public accessibility was the decision taken several years ago at the Walters to eliminate the barrier of admission charges.
The interview was conducted by a series of -.mails exchanged between Reginaldo Cerolini and Joaneath Spicer, whom we thank immensely for her insights, time and willingness to delve into the complex issues involved in the interview.