PAINTING OUR PAST: THE AFRICAN
DIASPORA IN ENGLAND
CORBRIDGE MUSEUM & ROMAN TOWN
A portrait of Septimius Severus from a series of a series of six commissioned by England Heritage, depicting historic figures from the African diaspora whose stories have contributed to England's rich history.
ON EXHIBITION AT CORBRIDGE MUSEUM
I was drawn to Severus because of the parallels with my own mixed heritage status (Nigerian, Spanish and German), and this made me reflect on how people might imagine someone like us to look like. I wanted to go beyond painting Rome’s African Emperor, to portray a complex individual by paying attention to his personality and how he chose to be seen in his coins, statues and architecture. Historically black people have had little control over their portrayal. Severus embodied and altered the image of the Roman Empire.
oil on canvas, 80x100cm
THE AFRICAN DIASPORA IN ENGLAND
The sources say...
HIS FEATURES - (nose) short and slightly turned-up | naturally curly hair | small man, but powerful and energetic | eyes look deep and searching, sometimes also appears brooding and abstracted | small, but physically powerful, a man of great energy, used to living under rough conditions and capable of hard physical effort | quick to understand a problem and act on it |
HIS DREAMS - the roman empire, itself, personified, approached him and saluted | someone took him up to a high mountain, from which he could see Rome and all of the world |as he gazed down on all the lands and sea, he laid his hands on them as one might on the instrument capable of
playing all modes and they all sang together | the provinces sang together to the
accompaniment of the lyre and flute
THE VISUAL NARRATIVE
LEGIO XIIII GEMINA MARTIA
Ref. SS’s military background
Convey how SS narrated his rise to power as loyal avenging of Pertinax and restoration of the city.
DOUBLE PORTRAIT WITH CRESCENT
Ref. importance of Julia Domna to SS’ rise
SS ON HORSEBACK
Ref. a popular image projecting an active military leader
BACCHUS & HERCULES - COLONISATION OF HELIOPOLIS
Ref. Some argue that Bacchus and Hercules were seen as conquering gods and have particularly strong links to Africa
VICTORY TROPHY & SEATED CAPTIVES
Ref. War against Parthian Empire, Arab & Adiab and slavery aspect of each victory.
The Portrait Process
My approach to the project defined each stage - I wanted to voice how Severus chose to represent himself and use his life to place British history within a global framework. This was important to me as historically black people in Europe have had little control over their representation. I began with reading studies of Severus’s portraiture to try and understand how Septimius chose to portray himself. This research defined which visual sources were significant and interesting for the project. I started with an awareness that the coins would give the nearest impression of how he looked.
I understood that the “young military soldier” type, his earlier coin, gave the most idiosyncratic representation of him. I identified consistencies in features across these coins and used these to sketch a side profile (image) of these features that would inform the features of his face front on. I gathered together images of statues of Septimius in the round which had been identified by historians as particularly good/ standard types. Then referencing my numastic portrait sketch began to group features that seemed consistent). From this I created various sketches.
When thinking about the stylisation and the colouring for the portrait I wanted to reference Roman visual culture and so with the support of the curator and historian researched frescos, in particular we looked at the frescos at Dura-Europos which are contemporaneous with Severus. They seemed to bring as much light and colour into their work as possible.
As I was concerned to voice Septimius’s self- representation, I felt it was important to include images of visual references I had used I focused on two portrait types - the young military type (featured on the right arm of his chair) which bears his idiosyncratic features and the Antoninus type (on his left) which marks his self-adoption into the Antonine Dynasty.
Despite giving attention to Septimius’s self- representation, ultimately the portraits varies from his concerns as it represents Septimius as a person, a sum of his culture, context, personality and achievements. I wanted to define him in a way that comes as close as possible to how the Romans would have seen him or rather understood the image of himself that he was putting out there.
technique - oil on liquid and linseed
technique - palette knife
technique - turpentine oil wash on thick impasto
Why were you interested in being part of this English Heritage Project?
I wanted to form part of an effort to address the imbalances and holes in history and return the presence and contribution of people of colour to English history. Black history in Britain is not just a history of colonialisation and slavery. I hope this project helps to continue this revision process and bring the countless figures lost back into our awareness and change how British history is visualised.
Where there any particular challenges?
Severus’s skin colour was an interesting challenge. My approach was to represent Severus as Roman’s would have seen him and how he chose to represent himself. I had understood that skin and race were not directly equivalent in Roman culture, though there may have been some sort of equivalent to ethnic origins. Romans seem to prioritise cultural behaviour as an indicator of one’s race. So, it was interesting that Septimius adopted himself into the Antonine dynasty, and emphasised his Romaness, despite many historians emphasising the African and Syrian influences during his reign. I think his representation in his coins (Carthage, Hercules and Bacchus) demonstrate that synthesis. Through the fresco in the background I wanted to symbolically portray both his adopted Roman Heritage and His African background. For his skin colour I settled on the colours used in the Berlin Tondo to paint the emperor and his family.
Not having a model was another challenge, and to make Septimius seem human I didn’t want to just take his pose from his statues. Not having a model was another challenge, and to make Septimius seem human I didn’t want to just take his pose from his statues. So when deciding on posture I was mindful of an impression that I had of the emperor as somebody who was in constant movement in his mind and body, I came across busts of the emperor which showed him tilted leaning forward. This posture recalled how the emperor was quick to act and enquiring. So this bust formed the foundation for his clothing and the positioning of the rest of his body, which had to fit around this posture.
Were they any particular highlights?
The highlights were engaging with the historical materials, having the opportunity to get to know Severus through the writings of Cassius Dio Also getting to appreciate the colour and character of Roman visual culture, everything is so stylised and vivid. All of my research really just drove home how how vast and globalised the Roman empire was, to the extent that you could have so many different cultures and people on the edge of the Roman Empire.
What did you learn about your subject/sitter while completing their portrait?
I think that something that was really striking about Severus was how aware he was of his image, and how he was seen. Not only in his visual representations but also in life, for example his decision to ride into Rome victoriously in civilian dress I think this is also shown in his choice and effort to assert his self-adoption into the Antonine Dynasty.
My impression is that the changes he made to the Roman infrastructure opened it up and decentralised its Italian identity, from extending the empire to abolishing the limitation of Praetorian to only natives of Italy and Spain (Roman province), and substituting their forces with his own Danubian troops. Maybe I am reading too much into his dreams but I think this idea of a balance, cohesion and order across the provinces seems to appear in his dreams.
When reading about him I was struck by one phrase that seemed to have a contemporary relevant very pertinent to the project - on his urn ( I believe) he requested or it was written - “You will hold a man that the world could not hold”.
Severus like the other figures features in this project have been lost to history as they did not fit a projected vision of British history and culture, hopefully this project will help them to exist again.