Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Africans in Shakespeare's London

According to the info panels in the British Museum's current exhibition on Shakespeare's world, there were about 900 people of African ancestry among the estimated London population of 200,000 in the late  Elizabethan era.

Despite the infamous order authorising the deportation of all blackamoors (which seems never to have been implemented) the documentary and/or visual evidence for these residents  is  as yet meagre, although steadily growing.  So it is very good to see a seriously informative presentation of the African presence, via direct and indirect means, including the fine portrait above (three-quarter-length in full frame) of the Moroccan ambassador to the court of St James - predecessor of the envoy so discourteously thrust into the debauchery of Charles II's palace at Whitehall.  

 It is also excellent to see the unidentified man in the earlier portrait by Jan Mostaert now in the Rijksmuseum  - justified by the global scope of the exhibition, arguing that travel and trade, exploration  and migration meant that London was connected by all kinds of cross-currents, whose effects are visible, or rather verbal, in Shakespeare's plays, in their diverse settings, allusions, characters, plots and imagery, which range far and wide. 

Thus, also, an example of the Renaissance fashion for black marble blackamoors, like this head  from Rome by Nicolas Cordier.  
As these are not the only Africans to feature in Staging the World, and there are several other equally interesting topics explored, you can see what a rich and absorbing exhibition it is.  Compliments to the curators.
An added bonus:  by centring the show on Shakespeare, all the topics including the Black presence, appear mainstream rather than marginal.

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