A painting, a smile, a director. Dido Elizabeth Belle; Amma Asante
May 28, 2014 4:51 AM   Subscribe

The enigma of Mona Lisa's smile? Who cares? The mystery of Dido Belle is much more intriguing. The double portrait Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, once attributed to Johann Zoffany and now hanging in Scone Palace in Perth, depicts two elegant 18th-century women in silks and pearls at Kenwood House in London. Beyond them, you can just glimpse St Paul's and the rest of the Georgian cityscape. Nothing unusual about any of that, but for one detail – Dido is mixed race. Belle is about slavery and follows on the heels of Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. An impossible act to follow, you might suppose. Yet the two films could hardly be more different. "I wouldn't want audiences to come to Belle and think they were about to see '12 Years a Slave Mark 2'," Asante says. Based in Britain and rooted in fact, Belle is an extraordinary story, she tells me: Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) was the daughter of John Lindsay, a British admiral, and an African slave. She grew up in Kenwood House, Hampstead, under the guardianship of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield. One delicately speculative Guardian article about a painting and its context leads to a fascinating portait of a Ghanaian/British filmmaker and the circumstances that formed her. Asante has always had an "extra eye" and sees herself as an insider and outsider (all directors, she believes, need to be emotionally ambidextrous).
posted by glasseyes (12 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
What a charming portrait and what a great story. Here's a link to the Slavery and Justice Exhibition at Kenwood House. It has a downloadable brochure (PDF part 1, PDF part 2) which is worth reading.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:12 AM on May 28, 2014

Thanks for that link, Joe in Australia. I had no idea about the exhibition, which was in 2007.

Following the links from the Guardian brings up this other painting that also sits right on the intersection between between 18thC portraiture, slavery and Abolition, Ben Okri on Ayuba Suleiman Diallo: A Dialogue Across Time.(2013, National Portrait Gallery) - William Hoare’s compelling painting of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is the first portrait of a black African Muslim and freed slave. An educated man from a family of Muslim clerics in West Africa, whose family traded cattle and other commodities including slaves, in 1731 Diallo was taken into slavery. He arrived in London in 1733 where he mixed with high and intellectual society, was introduced at Court and was bought out of slavery through a public appeal.

Diallo's interactions with his 'English friends and admirers' are cited as a key influence on the growing Abolitionist movement of the later 18C.

From the video, "We can see from the painting that the artist has entirely engaged with Diallo as a person, as a man of sensitivity, of quizzical humour, but he's also, at Diallo's request, represented wearing what he described as 'his own country dress' and wearing - this is a quote - 'an al Koran of his own writing,' around his neck. So this red shape around his neck on a ribbon is one of the three Korans that Diallo wrote from memory during his year in England."

There's a memoir.
posted by glasseyes at 7:06 AM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the post. Here's a link to "Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe"
posted by dhruva at 7:17 AM on May 28, 2014

I'm of two minds; One, I've done a lot of research on Ms. Belle, with a notion towards writing a YA book about her, so I'm sad that someone else beat me to telling her story, but on the other hand, I've done a lot of research on Ms. Belle, and I'm thrilled that someone is telling her story to an audience that I could probably never hope to reach.
posted by dejah420 at 7:52 AM on May 28, 2014 [8 favorites]

The enigma of Mona Lisa's smile? Who cares?

I thought it wasn't an enigma anymore. I thought it had been concluded it was a self-portrait (in drag). Makes perfect sense to me.
posted by philip-random at 8:13 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Beautiful magazine. Relatedly, though less academically (more popularly) there's the blog People of Colour in European Art History which has featured in Metafilter before.

The ramification is that people and cultures are mixed. It's inevitable, but like a lot of inevitable things, often invisible. I mean, in an ethnicity and in a cultural sense, we are all completely intertwined with each other - but Dido Belle married an Englishman and within a generation Africa would have been invisible in her descendants. I.e. her grandchildren and probably at least one of her own children would have appeared completely English.

dejah, I know, I'm really looking forward to that film! And I thought the director seems a very interesting artist.
posted by glasseyes at 8:14 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

The movie was great. Pride and Prejudice meets Lincoln.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:44 AM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is such a gorgeous portrait!
posted by corb at 8:58 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I liked Belle, overall, but found it a bit clunky in the opening and later in setting up the abolitionist monologues. Both articles are great, although it appears that the historical Mansfield was a more conflicted when it comes to condemning slavery than is described by the movie or one of the articles. I've read two different accounts of his actual oral statements for Somersett, but both agree that his argument was that slavery had no support "but for positive (statutory) law," which existed in the colonies but not in London where Somersett was abducted. His decision on the Zong Massacre held the ship-owners responsible but fell short of challenging slavery, and the men responsible were never charged with murder.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:08 AM on May 28, 2014

Excellent post glasseyes, thank you for the FPP and the subsequent links.

I found the post on Belle in the Mediaval POC tumblr you linked to
posted by infini at 9:36 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Cheers, infini! *waving*
posted by glasseyes at 9:55 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

*bicultural wave back* ;p
posted by infini at 10:07 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

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