From the Renaissance through to the 19th century, history painting was more or less held to be the highest form of art that anyone could possibly make. Themes ranged from classical mythology or Biblical tales through to battle scenes and colonial conquests from more recent times. The latter implicitly cast the invariably white and male subjects in the heroic poses once reserved for the likes of Achilles and Hercules.
Epic in scale, bang for your buck in terms of the number of characters portrayed, and often a freewheeling demonstration of the artist’s classical erudition, the genre elevated painters from craftsmen to philosophers and laid the bedrock for the art academies in both France and, later, Britain. The Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti was an early exponent, arguing in his 1435 treatise De pictura that the pinnacle of the arts was a new narrative form of painting, which he called istoria; to practice it, you had to have mastered all the other genres.
Joshua Reynolds pontificated on history painting in a 1771 lecture at London’s Royal Academy of Arts (which he had recently invented so that artists could be gentlemen and he could get a knighthood), proclaiming that painters should focus on events and characters so well known as to be “universal,” for example “the great events of Greek and Roman fable and history,” which were not “degraded by the vulgarism of ordinary life in any country.”
By the 19th century, when Britain’s ruling class had been infiltrated by industrialists who had often been born into “ordinary life,” this last aspect became a problem. In reality, history painting was more often than not exploited to tell a pack of lies, whether that lying occurred through omission, embellishment, or plain making it up. Far from universal, they were white lies—bar the occasional “noble savage” orbiting the white heroes, as in Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe of 1770.
In 2004, the London-based painter Kimathi Donkor made a series of works titled Caribbean Passion: Haiti 1804, which will be presented at Independent by Niru Ratnam gallery. At the time of its execution, it marked the 200th anniversary of Haiti’s declaration of independence from French colonists following an uprising by former slaves. And it adopts the language and architecture of history painting for Donkor’s own ends.
Toussaint L’Overture at Bedourete (2004) features the most prominent leader of the Haitian Revolution astride a rearing horse looking out from the picture with his sword held aloft. His pose mirrors Jacques-Louis David’s celebrated 1801 equestrian portrait of Napoleon Crossing the Alps, in which the French leader alone, battling the winds and a craggy mountain pass, appears to be conquering nature itself. As others have observed, if you place the two images side-by-side you get a face-off.
But Donkor’s work goes beyond acts of opposition, appropriation, and infiltration. Toussaint’s brown horse (Napoleon’s stallion, like its rider, is white) rears up before a mutilated Black body rendered in similar coloring, missing an arm, a foot, sections of thigh, and stomach. The man has been stripped and tortured, it is implied (and was often the case), just as the slaves in the uprising were stripped of their names, religions, and identities. Toussaint is surrounded by his fellow fighters, part of a community resisting subjugation by the French, rather than a lone hero. The Haitian general is heroic, but not far removed from the atrocities of everyday Black life.
Why is this important? Because the myth of passive victimhood that accompanied histories of the slave trade and colonialism has been perpetuated over the centuries, until the recent present. Even through the 20th century, emancipation was still understood to be a gift bestowed by the former enslavers. In his “Wind of Change” speech delivered to the South African parliament in 1960, the UK prime minister Harold Macmillan described decolonization as the natural result of Britain having given its colonies a “national consciousness” and thus prepared them for self-governance.
Toussaint L’Overture at Bedourete, on the other hand, reminds us that such impulses existed among oppressed and enslaved communities long before that. Self-emancipation, as academic Priyamvada Gopal, among others, has proposed, is the only form of true liberty. In a sense, Donkor’s Caribbean Passion project represents just that, insisting that we remember the histories Western societies have buried in their grand narratives of progress, by inserting them into their equally grand narratives of art. Emancipating Black narratives from their suppression by an almost exclusively white history and style of Western art, Donkor emerges as a fellow traveler of artists such as Kerry James Marshall in the US.
During the 1780s and 90s, at around the same time as Toussaint was liberating Haiti, the private army of the British East India Company was being torn apart in Mysore by hand-held rockets deployed by the armies of Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, then engaged in their own freedom fight. Following the sack of Tipu’s capital, the rockets were removed to Britain, studied, “reinvented,” and patented by inventor William Congreve in 1808. In a similar vein, then, you could see Donkor’s Haitian paintings as not only reclaiming the form, but also the tactics of colonial history. But there is more to it than that.
In Donkor’s Portrait of the Artist Helping with Enquiries: 1984 (2005) we see the artist, naked, being beaten by the police, which has echoes of the naked body in Toussaint L’Overture at Bedourete or the fleeing child and woman being dragged away by her hair in another of the Haitian series, Bacchus and Ariadne (2004). The latter draws on Titian’s 1520-23 history painting of the same name to portray the violent consequences of French general (and Napoleon’s brother-in-law) Charles Leclerc’s plan to “wage a war of extermination” on the Haitian rebels.
But Portrait of the Artist is a scene set in modern London, rooted in the memory of an experience Donkor had at the hands of the British police while being interrogated during the early 1980s. The violence continues, he reminds us here, and in works like Jean Charles de Menezes borne aloft by Joy Gardner and Stephen Lawrence (2010), currently exhibited at Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present. Evoking the classical theme of the Deposition of Christ, the painting commemorates Jean Charles de Menezes, mistakenly shot dead by British counter-terrorism officers, Joy Gardner, who died after being arrested for deportation, and Stephen Lawrence, whose murder provoked an inquiry into institutional racism in the police force. And so the fight goes on.
Mark Rappolt is the Editor-in-Chief of ArtReview. He founded its sister publication, ArtReview Asia, in 2013.