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The Entanglement of Art and Slavery in the Work of Juan de Pareja

The Black figure is currently in a sustained spotlight. For some time now, curators, scholars, and critics have wrestled with the representation of people of African descent in art, grappling with the interpretive problems and possibilities presented by subjects who were once objects, cargo, and commodities. The rise of a Black figurative turn in contemporary art reflects this interest. In the past six years, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Kerry James Marshall, and Toyin Ojih Odutola—all of whom have made Black figures their central subject—have each had a solo exhibition at a major museum.

Galleries, too, have capitalized on the Black figure’s new presence in the public eye. Business has been particularly brisk among art institutions seeking to remediate the relentless whiteness of their holdings. And many museums have followed suit, mining their own collections for Black subjects and engaging with paintings, prints, sculptures, and works of decorative art anew in their efforts to bring to light the histories of race, slavery, and colonialism. Such attention has been a long time in coming.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a portrait by Diego Velázquez has served as a starting point for a new exhibition and catalog exploring the tangled history of art production, race, and enslaved labor. The portrait, completed in 1650, shows a man named Juan de Pareja. Captured in a dignified pose, he meets our gaze with a sensitive regard. The fluid and shimmering brushwork of Velázquez evokes the light gleaming on Pareja’s brow and glinting from his dark eyes. He appears in the dress of a Spanish nobleman, with a broad lace collar and a sash across his chest. Yet while nothing in the painting would suggest it, the power that Velázquez holds over Pareja exceeds the typical relationship of artist to subject or portraitist to sitter. Velázquez, the Old Master, is a master in another sense: the master of the man he has painted, who is his slave.

In their 2013 book Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, Agnes Lugo-Ortiz and Angela Rosenthal ask: If the Western visual tradition insists on portraiture’s affirmation of the subject, can there really be a portrait of a slave? Or do portraits of enslaved individuals intrinsically undermine the objectifying project of slavery? Pareja’s dignified presence here stands as a visual counterpoint to what typically turns up in the search for Black figures in collections of European art: fantastically attired blackamoor pages, sometimes with silver slave collars, crouching at the knees of the white subjects of European portraiture, offering a tonal contrast between ethereal whiteness and inky blackness, and a conceptual contrast between power and subservience, dominance and subjugation. Unlike these anonymous Black figures, however, Pareja has a history. He was a painter himself. After his manumission, he went on to found his own workshop as a free man, executing paintings that were displayed in the private and ecclesiastical spaces of Madrid. Several major examples of his work appear in the Met’s exhibition alongside paintings attributed to Velázquez, many of which reflect Pareja’s contributions to the Old Master’s output. Also in the exhibit are polychrome sculptures, metalwork, and ceramics that further reveal the breadth of enslaved and emancipated artistic labor in 17th-century Spain. Together, these works allow us to glimpse the milieu into which Pareja entered, first as enslaved assistant and then as independent artist.

We don’t know a great deal about Juan de Pareja—but then again, we know more about him than we do many other European artists of the early modern period, some of whom we can name only with epithets like “Master of Ávila” or (a personal favorite) “Master of the Drapery Studies.” In his catalog essay, David Pullins, a curator of the exhibition alongside Vanessa K. Valdés, lays out what we do know of Pareja’s life. Born around 1608 in Antequera, a small city about 90 miles west of Seville, he was perhaps the child of a Spanish man and an enslaved African woman, or then again maybe a Morisco, a descendant of the North African Muslims who were forcibly converted to Catholicism after the end of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula. He was a member of a substantial population of enslaved men, women, and children of African descent living and working in Spanish urban centers, where it was common for households to own one or two, but usually not more than three, slaves. His duties in Velázquez’s workshop would have included grinding pigments and preparing canvases—but as the show reveals, he also made far more significant contributions to the paintings that today bear his master’s name.

Read entire article at The Nation