‘Rediscovering Black Portraiture’ at the Higgins Bedford this May

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Africa The Land of Hope and Promise for Negro Peoples of the World by Bisa Butler (2020) Recreated by Peter Brathwaite Image Sam Baldock. Image: Getty Publications
Africa The Land of Hope and Promise for Negro Peoples of the World by Bisa Butler (2020) Recreated by Peter Brathwaite Image Sam Baldock. Images: Getty Publications

This month sees the launch of a new exhibition in Bedford which began as a diversionary lockdown project in 2020 and can now be seen at Kensington Palace, the Bodeian Library in Oxford and now The Higgins.

It features the work of Manchester-born professional opera singer, Peter Brathwaite, who has lived in the Black Tom area of Bedford since 2018.

With all his singing work cancelled during the pandemic, Peter began looking for an outlet for his creative talents and started recreating famous and lesser-known Black portraiture paintings using as props whatever he could find around his house.

It was inspired by the Getty Foundation’s lockdown project, but quickly took on a life of its own, gathering a large international online following. You can explore the project at his Instagram page @peter_brathwaite.

Fast-forward out of the lockdown and works from Peter’s project have been displayed at Kings College London, formed a major exhibition at Bristol Museum and are currently on display at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and at Kensington Palace.

He has also published a book of the project, ‘Rediscovering Black Portraiture’ published by Getty.

And from Saturday, 18 May, they will form part of an installation at the Higgins Bedford which will lead visitors through the main collections and into Cecil Higgins’ house, with Peter’s interpretation of The Paston Treasure at its heart.

This 17th-century painting depicts the treasures acquired by the Norfolk-based Paston family, including exotic fruits, animals, and a meticulously dressed Black man.

Brathwaite writes: “The depiction of this Black man represents a process of being dehumanised twice over – first as a piece of property, and then again because the scene is so far removed from his actual reality.”

Through his own personal belongings, Brathwaite reimagines the painting, prompting conversation about the portrayal of objects and subjects within museum collections.

In the Collector’s Gallery on the first floor of the museum, Peter’s version of The Paston Treasure will be displayed next to a case of ‘objet trouve’ from Peter’s life that form his homage to the original painting.

It asks us to question what makes something art or an artefact, displayed alongside objects from the Bedford Modern School collection of antiquities collected during scholars’ late 19th and early 20th centuries travels.

In Cecil Higgins’ House Peter’s photographs will be interspersed with the room settings with a main display in the Dressing Room upstairs.

“It’s going to be quite impactful,” Peter told the Bedford Clanger. “A lot of museums don’t know what to do with historic objects where the associated stories or meaning have become challenged, so I hope to give some transparency to objects and subjects in paintings and on display in museums.

“By putting my own belongings on display, it’s an attempt to open that conversation.” He said the subject matter contributes to bigger conversations about reparations, Empire and colonialism.

“The exhibition at the Higgins is what I wanted to achieve at the heart of the project – the work being seen outside of London. Hopefully, it will encourage smaller museums to kickstart work of their own.”

In addition to the portraits and objects, Caribbean dolls have been dotted around the museum, creating another layer of exploration, particularly for younger visitors.

Virgin of Guadeloupe 1745 recreated by Peter Brathwaite (photography Sam Baldock). Image: Getty Publications

Peter said children have enjoyed spotting the differences between his interpretations of paintings and the originals, while experts have found deeper meaning through discussing and dissecting the work. “There’s something for everyone to discover.”

Peter said that the writing, curating and speaking, in addition to his ‘day job’ has become “the new normal”. 

“I’m still learning operas, but all of the work that I’m now doing influences one another and is all rooted in my performance career. It feels like a natural progression.

“I began the project with no plan and no intention, just something to pass the time during lockdown. It’s wonderful to see it evolve and to see the reaction to it from across the world.”

Rediscovering Black Portraiture opens at the Higgins Bedford on Saturday, 18 May. The Higgins Bedford is located on Castle Lane, Bedford, MK40 3XD. Entry to the exhibition is free, opening hours and further information can be found at the Higgins website here.

The exhibition is supported using public funding by Arts Council England.