Our ‘Am Not I a Man and a Brother’ painting has been shortlisted for Art Fund Wok of the Year 2018. Shown here as it was acquired, and before conservation work. Image courtesy of National Museums Liverpool.
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‘Am Not I a Man and a Brother’ is a significant acquisition for the Museum- and the UK.
It is the first painting in our collection to show the powerful and resonant iconography of abolition. The artwork dates from around 1800 and the artist is unknown. The foot of the canvas reads, ‘Am Not I a Man and a Brother’, a variation on the more common version, ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother’.
The painting’s dominant motif is that of an enslaved African, kneeling, bound in chains and set against the backdrop of a Caribbean sugar plantation. This is based on a design commissioned by the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade on 5 July 1787, which is considered to be one of the first instances of a symbol designed for a political cause and was used famously by the potter Josiah Wedgwood.
It is only the second known painting to exist featuring this motif – the only other being ‘The Kneeling Slave’ at the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull.
The painting is currently undergoing cleaning and restoration. Here you can see senior painting conservator David Crombie starting off that process.
As the abolitionist movement gained popular support, the motif was widely used for decorating men's snuff boxes, ladies’ bracelets and hair pins, as well as household objects including milk jugs, sugar bowls and tobacco boxes.
Further enslaved people raise axes to the sugar cane in the background of the painting.
Curator Stephen Carl-Lokko, who made the acquisition, said:
"We’re so pleased to have been shortlisted for Art Fund Work of the Year 2018.
This is a significant acquisition for the UK. While the image became an important symbol of the abolitionist movement, it also touches on the historical representation of enslaved Africans.
Look at the top left of the painting: you can already see how different it’s going to look after conservation. The painting is expected to go on display at the International Slavery Museum in Spring 2019.
Although the image was designed to appeal to the sympathies of the British public in identifying with the cause of abolition, it also reflects the misconception of enslaved Africans as passive acceptors of their fate.
In fact the opposite was true, enslaved Africans were the main instigators in their fight for freedom, with Black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano and Mary Prince actively campaigning as part of the British abolitionist movement.
We address this and put this into context for our modern audience and hopefully we can start a discussion with our visitors when they see this painting about the historical representation of Black people within art."
The acquisition was made possible through a generous grant award by the Art Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme.
All those who vote for their favourite artwork will be entered into a free prize draw, with the chance of winning a lifetime National Art Pass worth £1,850. Vote here for your favourite in the shortlist until 5pm on Saturday 15 December 2018.