Memoir I: The Aristocrats of the Present

Disclaimer: Before we start this memoir, I would just like to state I do not own the following pictures. The aim of all these memoirs is to educate.

History is a very powerful tool, if you don’t know your past, then where are you going? I remember being in history, and my first encounter with black history was the transatlantic slave trade, and it made me feel sad. I wasn’t taught about the black community who existed in Elizabethan England, I wasn’t taught about the moors who lived in Portugal, and I wasn’t taught about Mansa Musa.

What I was taught was a very air-brushed version of black history. I learnt about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. I was taught that Martin Luther King came and made racism “magically disappear” with his ‘I have a dream’ speech. But to be fair, I was taught about the colonisation of Africa. But as I said in the beginning, it was an air-brushed version, so all the crimes and travesties committed by Europe were omitted, and it was this version which really altered my perception of black people. It was only until my gap year that I undid this damage.

So what I am going to do in this part of the memoir is take you on a trip across Europe’s history. But give you the black version.

Let’s start in the 16th Century, and it is here we meet the musician, John Blanke. Records show that John Blanke was the earliest recorded black person in England after the Roman period. The records also show that John Blanke regularly played at the courts of both Henry VII and Henry VIII.

If we go to Victorian Britain, we encounter Prince Alemayehu who was taken to Britain after his father committed suicide in April 1868, following his defeat against British troops at the Battle of Magdala. During his time in Britain, the prince lived and studied on the Isle of Wight. He also encountered Queen Victoria who took a great interest to him – The Queen would even mention the prince in her diaries. What is sad about Prince Alemayehu’s story is he died at the age of 18.

Another example is the Yoruba princess, Sarah Forbes Bonetta. As a child, the young girl was captured by an African king during a ‘slave-hunt’ war. What is also sad, is the war led to her parents being killed. During a visit in 1850, the Naval Captain, Frederick E Forbes, took the girl from the African King and sent her to England, as a gift to Queen Victoria. The Queen was impressed by Sarah as she had a gift for literature, art and music – her intellect was also admired throughout the royal court. Sarah would go on to marry James Pinson Labulo Davies who was also an impressive individual. By the age of 31, he had amassed a considerable amount of wealth. A little side note: he is credited for introducing cocoa farming to West Africa. So, the two got married in Brighton, and they had a child who was named Victoria – with the Queen’s permission of course. Another little side note: Queen Victoria was also her Godmother.

Next stop is the 20th Century, World War II. No one really mentions the black soldiers who took part in the war, no one ever mentions the black RAF pilots such as John Jellicoe Blair, Ulric Cross or Johnny Smythe. And no one really mentions the contributions of both Africa and the Caribbean during that period; the oil supplied from Trinidad and Tobago; the diamonds that came from Congo, and the rubber that came from Uganda. What is also interesting is some RAF squadrons were named after countries in Africa and the Caribbean.

I’ve got one more example before we delve into this memoir, and we need to go to 18th Century Britain, where we encounter the aristocrat Dido Elizabeth Belle. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay, an officer in the British Navy. In terms of her mother, she was a former slave named Maria Bell.

In the 18th Century, it was not strange for a powerful aristocrat to be the legal guardian of an illegitimate child. However, a legal guardian to a child of mixed heritage whose mother was a formerly enslaved black woman. “Hogwash!”, as the English would say. Furthermore, to be raised as an equal to other aristocrats in 18th-century Britain and not as a servant. No chance. But that’s what happened.

During her time in Kenwood, she was brought up as a lady alongside her cousin, Elizabeth Murray. She was also taught how to read, write, and play various instruments. She was also given an annual allowance. It is even thought that Dido had an influence on her great uncle, Lord Mansfield who was lord chief justice, the most powerful judge in England. During his lifetime, Lord Mansfield presided over many court cases that examined the legality of the transatlantic slave trade.

Even after her great uncle’s death, Dido received a large sum of money which was the equivalent of £40,000.

If we turn our attention to this piece which was painted in 1778, you can immediately see the status Dido held.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1778)

During the 18th Century, it was common to see people of colour depicted in art as servants with a few exceptions. But in this piece, we see the opposite; the two ladies are both equals. If we focus on Dido and the clothes she is wearing, you can tell she had status, from her white dress to her pearl neckless.

If we look at all these examples and more, it is painfully obvious that as black people our contribution to Europe’s history is more than just slavery. We existed in positions of power before slavery, during slavery, and after slavery, and we must tell these stories to black children and non-black children. “History is written by the conqueror, not by those who are conquered” are the words of Michael Holdings, former cricket player. Michael Holdings is right, but my response to that is the following, true history can be told by those who give a damn about the future generation.

But how can we tell this true history? Well, I think the artist Glory Samjolly might have the answer to that question.

From a young age, Glory loved art. Whenever she was with her babysitter, Glory’s attention would be fixated on her babysitter’s drawings. “I wanted to be as good as my babysitter. […] I wanted to know the secret to drawing good art”. This fascination would continue and would even be encouraged by her grandmother. During our interview, Glory recounted the times she would be with her grandmother, and she would always draw.

Glory’s interest in art continued all the way to secondary school, but the artist stated she wasn’t pushed to take art seriously as a potential career in the first three years of secondary school. However, this would change.

During a school trip to Germany, Glory took a photograph of everyone on the trip and afterwards sketched those photographs. “The sketches weren’t amazing, but it was a start”. This was the push she needed, and after coming back from the trip, Glory realised she had a talent. By the end of year 9, Glory was officially committed to taken art seriously. For GCSE, she did Art and Photography, and for A-Levels, she did Art, Music and English Literature. For Glory, this was a perfect combination, because her A-Levels were an embodiment of who she was. “I really liked my A-Levels, because I write, I’m a musician, and I play the keys. My sisters are musicians too – one plays the bass and one plays the drums, and we all sing”.

During this year, Glory developed her artistic skills and worked at multiple illustration companies. After the year was completed, she applied to Wimbledon College of Arts and was successful.

Although it goes without saying, her mum wanted her to pursue other careers. “It was the fact my cousin was an architect, so my mum tried to push me into that space”. This comparison between her cousin did not deter Glory at all, it only strengthened her resolve to be an artist. “There are so many negative connotations to being an artist, it doesn’t have to be connected to poverty or failure, that’s not art. You do art because you love it not just because you want to sell stuff or make money. Because that’s not an artist, that’s just a salesman”.

In terms of other individuals who pushed her towards art, Glory stated her secondary school and A-Level teachers played an important part, as they were her mentors through her journey. Additionally, she is also grateful to her friends since they persuaded her to take art seriously.

With regards to the moment Glory considered herself an artist, she states the following, “I think I came to that point around A-Levels, but I knew I was an artist from a very young age. I was like, ‘yep, this is what I want to do, you don’t need to sway me, I am still going to do art’”.

In terms of how she would describe her work, Glory states it’s a combination of both feminism and cultural activism. “Not only am I trying to challenge who I am, but I’m also trying to challenge racist stereotypes within art history. […] I also want to strip away the patriarchal lens in art”.

A good example of this is the piece Glory {Self Portrait} (painted 2020).

As of the release of this memoir, Glory {Self Portrait} is Glory’s biggest painting. Additionally, the piece is dedicated to herself.

As you will see with her other paintings, they combine elements from the renaissance period and present day. For example, if you pay attention to Glory’s hand, you can see a phone which is in a phone case, and this is symbolic of a book. During that period, the subject would hold something that represented their knowledge or status, and this would either be a cane or a book.

If we turn our attention to the background, you will see some cars, the cars are in fact Teslas cars, Glory stated that Tesla was her favourite car and since this piece was dedicated to her, she wanted to incorporate the brand into this piece. Moreover, along with the phone, the cars we see are also symbolic, as they represent horses. If we go back to that period, the ownership of many horses symbolised a person’s wealth. So by having the Tesla cars as a stand-in for horses, and using our knowledge of the car brand, we can see what Glory is trying to tell us as the viewer. But we haven’t even got to the most interesting part of the piece, and that is the white male standing next to the Tesla cars. Glory stated that the figure we see in the background is her butler. This is deliberate as Glory wanted to reverse the roles. If we look at that era of art, it was common for black figures to be in the background while their white counterparts were the main subjects of pieces. Additionally, the black figures would be servants in those pieces. So by reversing the roles, Glory presents the viewer to a different reality – a reality in which she is in charge and is waited on. “I want people to recognise that it is renaissance but a contemporary renaissance as soon as they look at it. They should look at it and know that it is different because it doesn’t belong in that time period”.

Another aspect I love about this piece is how it evokes a conversation about black women’s hair. If we turn our focus back to Glory, and this time her hair, we can see she has an afro. Glory stated this was also deliberate, as she wanted to use the piece to empower black women. She wanted to tell the viewer that as a black woman, she has accepted her natural hair. “Two years ago, I went on a natural hair journey, and I decided I didn’t want to wear straight wigs”. In my opinion, the afro adds a sense of power to this piece, it adds to Glory’s presence and enriches the confidence she exudes in this piece.

Glory {Self Portrait} (painted 2020) [Oil on Canvas 120 x 162cm]

As an introvert, Glory sees her work as a channel to express her thoughts and feelings since ‘the art speaks for itself’. Even the canvases she uses plays an important role in how she expresses her feelings since it is made differently compared to traditional canvases.

A new question I want to introduce in this volume is the following, ‘what makes your work different to other artists?’. Glory’s states her work is different due to how it explores the African diaspora, and how it breaks conventional ideas. If you look at The Nuanced Architect in thought (painted 2020) and Lady Mia and the Politics of Hair (painted 2020) you will see this.

The Nuanced Architect in thought is a piece dedicated to Glory’s cousin called Bijou. Glory states that Bijou is the cousin she relates to the most, as she too is on an artistic journey. “She is someone I relate to. She is a bright, and a bubbly person”. In terms of the backdrop, just like Glory {Self Portrait}, this was done from a reference. With regards to items from the present day, the only item that can be seen is a bottle of supermalt which Bijou holds. Glory states the inclusion of the drink was deliberate and intended to catch the viewer off guard, and it works. “I wanted the viewer to think the piece was part of that era but also not, so I included the supermalt. It’s like a collaboration between European and African culture, delving into the viewer’s idea of what Black Britishness is”.

In all her paintings, Glory wants to open the conversation regarding the perception of black people during the renaissance period. She wants the viewer to think beyond just slavery and acknowledge the fact that black people were more than just slaves – they were inventors, they were royalty, they were something. “In Britain, they don’t tell us this. I wanted to capture people’s attention so that they can go and study themselves. There were black aristocrats way before the 1600s. They were there! They existed!”

All in all, the piece is powerful. Bijou exudes this mystique and allure that invites the viewer.

The Nuanced Architect in Thought (painted 2020) [Oil on Board 100 x 120cm]

Lady Mia and the Politics of Hair is another piece that focuses on black women’s hair. The subject of this piece is Mia, a fine art textiles student. Glory encountered Mia a year ago at a black history month event and was instantly attracted to her personality. Glory loved Mia’s confidence and loved how she expressed herself through her hair.

If we look at the piece, Mia’s hair is at the forefront of this piece. Her purple braids match her suit, and I think Glory does a fantastic job at accentuating the beauty of Mia’s hair. Glory tells us, the viewer, that Mia’s hair is an intrinsic part of her identity.

With regards to aspects from the present day, if you look closely you can see Mia wearing AirPods. Are they first generation? Or second generation? We don’t know, but that’s not the point. Overall, everything in this piece just works well together, the colours are balanced.

Lady Mia and the Politics of Hair (painted 2020) [Oil on Board 100 x 120cm]

Besides the African diaspora, Glory’s work has also explored the Asian Diaspora. In the piece, Her Highness the DJ (painted 2020), the subject is from Cambodia.

Last year Glory encountered a DJ called Sammy who was from Cambodia. In terms of what attracted Glory to Sammy, it was the DJ’s appreciation of black culture. She didn’t use the culture as an aesthetic, she was someone who supported black issues and advocated for change, in the words of Glory she had an ‘activist spirit’.

To incorporate Sammy’s love of music, Glory included a violin in this piece, and it is here we see the parallels between the renaissance period and now. During that era, the equivalent of a DJ was someone who played an instrument, for example, a violinist or a trumpeter.

Moreover, what is also beautiful about this piece is Sammy’s smile, and how it lights up the piece. The way she clutches the violin and holds it to her ear – you can really tell that music is something that brings her joy.

Also, if you look at the left side of the piece, you will see a small portrait of Sammy. Glory stated she wanted to put a painting within a painting, which is something commonly seen in renaissance paintings. With regards to the background of the piece, you will notice that there are no windows, this is symbolic of Glory’s time during the first lockdown at the beginning of March. During that period, Glory felt boxed in and felt bombarded by the news, so the piece was her response to those emotions. But with that being said, I think the presence of Sammy’s smile is symbolic of Glory’s hope and optimism during that period.

Her Highness the DJ (painted 2020) [Oil on Board 100 x 120cm]

With any form of creativity, inspiration is needed, and in terms of artists from the past who inspire Glory, they are Edmonia Lewis and Marie-Guillemine Benois. Daughter to a freed African American man and a Native American woman, Edmonia Lewis was a sculptor who received international recognition for her work. Glory admires the late artist due to the precedence she set for artists of colour. “You couldn’t find many black female artists doing what she was doing at that time”. With regards to Marie-Guillemine Benois, Glory admires her due to how she used her art to question the ideas of patriarchy, and she was one of the few artists who painted black women with such dignity. 

With regards to her contemporaries, Glory admires the artist, Harmonia Rosales. Rosales has recreated famous pieces such as The Birth of Venus and Creazione di Adamo. In her version, Rosales has replaced the white figures with black figures, and it is because of this, the artist has caused a vast amount of controversy in the art world, and it is this controversy that Glory loves. “Her work is a form of activism something similar to my work”.

But beyond the artists, Glory states she is also inspired by black feminists such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “I like her because she is someone who questions the African norms, and what they mean for women in 2020”.

In terms of her art’s legacy, Glory states the following, “I just want people to recognise that there were black feminists fighting for a change, fighting against the curriculum. We don’t learn about all the black aristocrats or the black nobles. They don’t teach us any of that. […] The only thing we learn about is either the abolitionists or the slaves or something in between. I just want people to know through my art there was a movement that challenged this”.

And I think this idea of women fighting for a change can really be seen in this final piece, The Honourable Women of Slayage in their study (painted 2020)

The creation of this piece began in Italy, everything you see, from the suits to the background is real – nothing is done from reference. The woman on the left is Glory, the woman in the middle is Glory’s friend who is also an artist, and on the right is Glory’s sister; all three women decided to rent an Airbnb in Italy, and it is the background you see which is from the Airbnb.

Like all the paintings seen in this memoir, they all start from a photograph. To begin with, Glory takes a photograph with her camera and then uses that image as a reference. “For it to be a good painting, it has to be a good photograph”. Additionally, like the other pieces, this piece has an item from the present day, if you look at Glory’s sister’s shoes, you will notice that she is wearing Jordan IV.

In terms of the subject’s clothes, Glory buys them and ensures they are fitted to the subjects. What you will also notice is that all her subjects wear suits instead of dresses. As stated before, this is Glory’s way of stripping the patriarchal lens. “The women are wearing suits and not dresses. […] Nowadays, we live in a world where we don’t always see women wearing dresses”.

Lastly, if we look at this piece, you will notice its glossy finish. Glory states, “In all my paintings I use gamvar varnish to give my paintings that renaissance feel, that beautiful shimmer”.

The Honourable Women of Slayage in their Study (painted 2020) [Oil and Wallpaper on Linen 80 x 100cm]

As Glory said, ‘the art speaks for itself’ and although we are in a lockdown, don’t for one second think Glory has taken her foot off the gas. In terms of what to expect from the artist, expect some new pieces. As of the release of this memoir, Glory has received a vast amount of commissions due to the success of Dear Archives. In terms of future exhibitions, they have been shifted to 2021 due to the pandemic. Nonetheless, during this period, Glory has been on the hunt for a printer supplier, as she wants to develop prints of her work. So, sit tight, and expect some amazing stuff from Glory Samjolly.

To see more of Glory’s work visit www.glorysamjollyart.com or follow her on Instagram at @gloryology

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