London Art Reviews

Magazine of art press and reviews from London

First portrait of slave Diallo is back at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

First portrait of slave Diallo is back at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

David Franchi – Monday, 29th July 2013

“it is the first known portrait of a black African Muslim and freed slave”

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (Job ben Solomon) by William Hoare © property of the Qatar Museums Authority/ Orientalist Museum, Doha

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (Job ben Solomon) by William Hoare © property of the Qatar Museums Authority/ Orientalist Museum, Doha

The oil portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo has ended its British tour. It is he first British portrait of a Black African Muslim and freed slave, painted by the British artist William Hoare of Bath in 1733.

It was the first time the oil portrait of Diallo has left London. The portrait has been loaned on long term to the National Portrait Gallery, London, by the Orientalist Museum, member of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) in January 2011.

The tour started at Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum (29 June – 23 September 2012) before moving to South Shields Museum and Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (29 September 2012 – 9 March 2013) and finally to New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester (6 April – 30 June 2013).

Each venue displayed the portrait in a different context responding to their collections and local audiences. The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool focused on Diallo’s personal story and experience of the transatlantic slave trade.

South Shields Museum displayed the portrait in an exhibition of works focusing on faith and identity, given the town is home to one of the most established Muslim communities in Britain.

Leicester investigated displacement and identity connecting the portrait with the changing demographics of its local community and showing its links with its permanent collection. It is hoped the project will create an opportunity to develop a sustainable relationship with the Somali community. A poet spent two days at each partner location to respond to the portrait and the related displays. This work feeds into the exhibition interpretation at the National Portrait Gallery once the portrait returned.

The portrait “Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (also known as Job ben Solomon)” is so important to be shown in itself out of any contest or exhibition. This portrait has a double importance. Firstly, it is the first known portrait of a black African Muslim and freed slave and the first portrait that honour a named African subject and Muslim as an individual and an equal.

Secondly, the display comes from an agreement between the Qatar Museum Authority (QMA) and the National Portrait Gallery, London. Following the purchase of the work by QMA at Christie’s in November 2009, the painting was the subject of export restriction, having been judged by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art to be of outstanding importance to the British history and culture.

Therefore, the National Portrait Gallery expressed its strong interest in the painting and the Qatar Museum Authority decided to lend the work for a five year period. QMA supported a programme organised by the National Portrait Gallery to include the conservation of the painting, research and interpretation. Also the UK tour was organised including Leicester, Liverpool and the North-East, and an exhibition to visit Doha in 2013.

The subject depicted, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, was born (1701 -1773) in Bondu, Senegal, and was also known as Job ben Solomon. He was a famous enslaved Muslim victim of the slave trade.

Ayuba was an extremely rare exception in the slave trade. Due to his intelligence and monetary ability, he was able to legally escape the hardships of slavery and return back home to Africa. His memoirs were published, in English and French, as one of the earliest “slave narratives”, a first-person account of the slave trade, in Thomas Bluett’s “Memories” (1734).

Ayuba Diallo came from a prominent family of Muslim religious leaders. In 1730, Ayuba and his interpreter Loumein Yoas were near the Gambia River to trade slaves and paper. They were captured by invading Mandingoes and sold to factors of the Royal African Company.

Once in America, as a slave Ayuba was placed in charge of the cattle but ran away and was captured at the Kent County Courthouse. There he was discovered by a lawyer, Thomas Bluett, who was impressed by Ayuba’s ability to write in Arabic. So Ayuba was allowed to write a letter in Arabic to James Oglethorpe, Director of the Royal African Company who purchased him for ₤45 and sent him to the London office of the Royal African Company.

Bluett and Ayuba travelled to England in 1733. Bluett arranged for Ayuba’s stay in Cheshunt in Hertfordshire. Once more Ayuba was scared to be enslaved and pleaded Bluett again. The Englishmen in London and surrounding provinces who had met Ayuba collected money to obtain Ayuba’s freedom. He was then able to fraternise with London’s elite, working for Hans Sloane as translator of Arabic into English and was in the company of many prominent people, including the Royal Family. In July 1734, Ayuba returned to Africa.

Ayuba, however, faced further troubles. In June 1736, he was imprisoned or held as a parolee by the French. Ayuba may have been targeted by the French because of his alliances with the British. He was held perhaps for a year by the French, when Ayuba’s local countrymen, rather than the British, secured his release. He later sent letters to the London RAC to visit London, but this request was denied. His death was recorded in the minutes of the Spalding Gentleman’s Society in 1773. 

William Hoare of Bath RA (1707 – 1792) was an English painter and printmaker, co-founder of the Royal Academy noted for his pastels. Hoare received a gentleman’s education. He was sent to London to study under Giuseppe Grisoni, who had left Florence for London in 1715. When Grisoni returned to Italy in 1728, Hoare went with him, travelling to Rome and continuing his studies under the direction of Francesco Imperiali. He remained in Rome for nine years, returning to London in 1737/8.

William Hoare was the first fashionable portraitist to settle in Bath. He obtained numerous commissions, the most important being for official portraits of social leaders of the day and political men. He was closely involved with the running of the Royal Mineral Water Hospital in Bath from 1742.

The portrait of Diallo by William Hoare was previously believed lost, and not seen in public until 2010. The National Portrait Gallery launched an appeal to raise its cost of £554,937 to prevent its export but it is property of Qatar Museum Authority, purchased at Christie’s in November 2009.

The National Portrait Gallery is grateful to Thomson Reuters for generously supporting the tour.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo portrait is on exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

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