London’s National Portrait Gallery has commissioned a poem by Ben Okri to go alongside a special display of its loaned painting of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, the first portrait of a black African Muslim and freed slave. The display will open 20 September.
Fascinated by the enigmatic story of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, and his relevance today, the Booker Prize-winning author’s new poem Diallo’s Testament explores the moving and sometimes uncomfortable story of one man’s involvement on both sides of the slave trade.
Diallo’s story is rich and complex; and the painting creates this extraordinary visual transaction which conceals and reveals so much…
by Ben Okri
Who can read the riddle of life
In this portrait of mine?
I am one on whom providence
Has worked its magic reversals.
Behind me are silent stories
Like a storm. I have worn
History round my neck like chains.
Freedom is a difficult lesson to learn.
I have tasted the language of death
Till it became the water of life.
I have shaped a little my canvas of time.
I have crossed seas of fires
And seen with these African eyes
The one light which neither empires
Nor all the might of men obscure.
Man is the sickness, God the cure.
William Hoare’s compelling portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is not only the earliest known British oil portrait of a freed slave but also the first portrait in this country to honour an African subject as an individual and equal. 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 and sent to work on a tobacco plantation in America. By his own enterprise and piety, and assisted by a series of strokes of fortune, Diallo arrived in London in 1733 where he mixed with high and intellectual society, was introduced at Court and was bought out of slavery by public appeal. After nearly a year in England, he was one of the few victims of the transatlantic slave trade to return to his family in Africa.
The portrait returns to the Gallery for the first time since a year-long British tour in which Okri embarked on a series of conversations to explore the painting and its impact on audiences. The portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by William Hoare (1733) is on long-term loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London, from the Orientalist Museum, Doha.
Ben Okri on Ayuba Suleiman Diallo: A Dialogue Across Time runs from 20 September 2013 until 16 March 2014.
Diallo’s Testament © Ben Okri, 2nd June 2013. All rights reserved
Ben Okri with the portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by William Hoare – photo by Matthew Lewis, 2013 (c) National Portrait Gallery, London
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.