Black lives in Europe

Artists, dancers and musicians

How Black figures have contributed to the European art, dance and music world

Photograph of the installation work Vacation by Shonibare

Black people have been portrayed in art as far back as the Middle Ages, sometimes in positive lights, whilst at other times through derogatory and negative imagery. Black people have also historically provided entertainment to wealthy Europeans for entertainment by music and dance performances. However the personal achievements of Black people in these fields had little recognition.

Juan de Pareja

Spanish Baroque artist Juan de Pareja is assumed to have been born into enslavement around 1610, most likely in Antequera, Spain to an African woman and a Hispanic father. Very little is known about his background. Pareja is assumed to have been enslaved by the painter Diego Velazquez, and Juan de Pareja was his workshop assistant.

Painted portrait of Juan de Pareja by Spanish painter Diego Velazquez

The first known reference to Pareja as a painter comes in 1630, in a letter addressed to the solicitor of the city of Seville. In this, he asks permission to move to Madrid to continue his studies with his brother. Considering there is no mention of Velazquez in this letter, it can also be argued that at this time, he could have already been freed from enslavement, or in fact not enslaved at all but born a free man. In those days, enslaved people were prohibited from becoming painters.

Religious painting of Christ appearing in the tax collector’s office and calling on Matthew to follow him. Juan de Pareja paints himself in the scene.

On a trip to Italy with Velazquez in 1649, Velazquez painted his famous portrait of Pareja. Most sources claim that in 1650 - while still together in Italy - Velazquez signed a legal document that would grant Pareja his freedom four years later, on the condition that he did not escape or commit any criminal acts in that time. In which case the claims that Pareja was emancipated in 1630 would be false.

From that time until his death in 1670, Pareja worked as an independent painter in Madrid, where he produced portraits and large scale religious works. The Calling of Saint Matthew (1661) is considered to be his masterpiece. In this, he paints himself as the leftmost figure holding a piece of paper that reads ‘Juan de Pareja in the year 1661’.

Yinka Shonibare

In the contemporary art world, British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare explores identity, colonialism and post-colonialism. He was born in London in 1962 to Nigerian parents and his family moved back to Nigeria when Shonibare was three years old. He returned to London aged 17 to do his A levels exams. At 18 he contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, resulting in a long-term physical disability which left one side of his body paralysed.

Shonibare studied Fine Arts at Byam Shaw School of Art and Goldsmiths University. After his studies he worked in arts development at Shape Arts, an organisation dedicated to making art accessible to people with disabilities.

Photograph of Shonibare as a Dandy at an aristocratic party being fawned on by white high class society.

His work Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 19.00 hours is part of a series of photographs depicting himself as a dandy and an outsider, using style and flamboyance to get into high society. The series reflects similar styles of satirical caricatures by the 18th century painter William Hogarth.

In 2002, Shonibare was commissioned by Nigerian art critic, writer and educator Okwui Enwezor to make his most recognisable work, Gallantry and Criminal Conversation. This launched him onto the international stage.

Photograph of the installation work Vacation by Shonibare

In many of his artworks, Shonibare uses recognisably African prints and textiles. Some of these patterns, it is believed, originally derived from Indonesian batik techniques, brought to West Africa by Dutch colonisers. Dutch companies have since exported the textiles to West Africa for centuries. His use of these textiles reaffirms the complexities of identity and culture.

His installation work Vacation, produced in 2002, shows a family of astronauts wearing space suits made from such textiles. The artwork addresses contradictions between postcolonialism, the perception of an ‘impoverished’ Africa and advanced scientific achievements of the Western world and the complexities of power dynamics in colonised-coloniser-explorer paradox.

Shonibare’s Scramble for Africa (2003) is a recreation of the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. Then, European leaders discussed the continent of Africa among themselves, and divided it to claim its territories. In the artwork, headless figures are seated around a table. The absence of heads can be seen to represent the European leader’s loss of humanity and identity.

I wanted to represent these European leaders as mindless in their hunger for what the Belgian King Leopold II called 'a slice of this magnificent African cake'.

The artwork is also an examination of how history repeats itself. Shonibare says ‘When I was making it, I was really thinking about American imperialism and the need in the West for resources such as oil and how this preempts the annexation of different parts of the world.’

Ignatius Sancho

painted portrait of a young Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius Sancho was born around 1729 on a slave ship in the Atlantic Ocean. Once the ship arrived in New Granada, Sancho was sold into enslavement. Tragically his mother died not long after their arrival on the colony and it’s said that his father took his own life rather than live as an enslaved person. He was brought to England before he was even two years old, where he was sold to three sisters in Greenwich and remained enslaved there for eighteen years. Unhappy with his lack of freedom, Sancho ran away to London to Montagu House, the home of the Duke of Montagu who had encouraged Sancho to read and had paid him extra attention while visiting Greenwich. Whilst in Montagu House, Sancho further developed his interest in reading, poetry, music and writing.

Sancho is mostly remembered as a composer, writer, actor and abolitionist. After his death, his letters were published. In these letters Sancho gives an account of his life, an early description of enslavement written from the perspective of an enslaved person.

A medallion portrait drawing of Ignatius Sancho with his name below it

Sancho's dance choreographies, created alongside his own musical compositions, are less well documented. Sancho worked on common dance forms in Georgian society - such as minuets, cotillions and country dances - which predate British ballet.

His dance works that survive today were originally published in a number of collections in the 1770s. Currently, 24 of his dance works are available in public collections, while there may be more within larger or private archives.

Les Ballets Nègres

In 1946, 166 years after Sancho's death, Les Ballets Nègres - the first European black dance company - was founded by Richie Riley and Berto Pasuka in London. Its dancers and staff were from Jamaica, Trinidad, Ghana, British Guiana, Nigeria and Germany. They mixed traditional Caribbean and African dance styles with modern dances and themes related to colonialism and African and Caribbean folklore. Their first season was an eight week run which sold out and toured extremely successfully across Europe.

The company closed down in 1952, as they were unable to survive on ticket sales alone and funders refused to support them. Although they were pioneers of their time, they have been hardly recognised in European dance history.

Yannick Noah

Yannick Noah holding a microphone and singing on stage

Former French tennis player Yannick Noah began his musical career in 1991 with his album Black or What. Its closing track Saga Africa became a popular summer hit in France, reaching gold disc status. Although most of the album is in English, Saga Africa's lyrics - composed by Noah - are a mixture of French and Cameroonian expressions, and also include a tribute to the Cameroonian national football team.

Noah was born in 1990, and spent his childhood in Cameroon. He is the son of Cameroonian footballer Zacherie Noah and his French wife Marie-Claire.

His 2006 album Charango sold over one million copies, and his song Aux arbres citoyens ranked number one in the charts in France for three weeks. The song is about defending the environment and encouraging people to protect our planet. It is often sung in French schools.

In 2010 he made a comeback with his eighth album, which featured the single Angela, dedicated to American political activist Angela Davis.

Fête de la musique: Yannick Noah en concert à Central Park, Thomas Viguier for AFP, Institut national de l'audiovisuel, In Copyright

Besides his musical career Noah is mainly known as a former professional tennis player. During his tennis career, which spanned almost two decades, he captured a total of 23 singles titles and 16 doubles titles, reaching a career-high singles ranking of third in the world in July 1986 and attaining the World No. 1 doubles ranking the following month. He was also the captain of France’s Davis Cup and Fed Cup team, and in 2005 he was inducted into the international tennis hall of fame.

Black and white photograph of a young Yannick Noah in action on the tennis court