Race and the art of Agostino Brunias

Agostino Brunias's paintings have often been understood as straightforward documents of visual ethnography that functioned as field guides for reading race. This book offers the first comprehensive study of Agostino Brunias's intriguing pictures of colonial West Indians of colour made for colonial officials and plantocratic elites during the late-eighteenth century. It talks about the so called 'Red' and 'Black' Caribs, dark-skinned Africans and Afro-Creoles, and mixed-race women and men. The book explores the role of the artist's paintings in reifying notions of race in the British colonial Caribbean and considers how the images both reflected and refracted common ideas about race. Although some historians argue that the conclusion of the First Carib War actually amounted to a stalemate, Brunias clearly documents it as a moment of surrender, with Joseph Chatoyer considering the terms of his people's submission. Young's Account of the Black Charaibs mobilised subtle and not-so-subtle allusions to the rebellion in Haiti to construct a narrative of the Carib Wars. The book analyses the imaging of Africans and Afro-Creoles in British colonial art. The painting named Mulatresses and Negro Woman Bathing, Brunias replaces his more quotidian trade scenes and negro dancing frolics with a bathing tableau set against a sylvan Eden. In Linen Market, Dominica, one arresting figure captivates the viewer more than any other. Brunias may have painted for the plantocractic class, constructing pretty pictures of Caribbean life that reflected the vision of the islands upon which white, colonialist identities depended.

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This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book considers how the artist's pictures of Carib Indians visually reinforced the insistent, and argues largely imagined distinction between so-called 'Red' and 'Black' Caribs made by British colonialists. It explores the role of the artist's paintings in reifying notions of race in the British colonial Caribbean and also considers how the artist's images reflected and refracted ideas about race, which commonly held by Britons during the long eighteenth century. The book analyses the imaging of Africans and Afro-Creoles in British colonial art. It also analyses Agostino Brunias's adaptation of models from canonical Western art and eighteenth-century popular visual culture, to consider the artist's compositional and conceptual inventiveness. The book looks at the significance of the artist's portrayal of presumably enslaved black people typically engaged in episodes of entrepreneurialism, leisure, or merrymaking.

in Colouring the Caribbean
Race-ing the Carib divide

This chapter considers the extent to which Agostino Brunias's Carib pictures provided a visual narrative to reinforce the insistent distinction between Red and Black Caribs made by British colonialists in the Lesser Antilles. It offers a focused study of Brunias's Carib pictures within the political and cultural context of their creation. The chapter discusses the unique historical circumstances regarding the British-Carib conflict in St Vincent, giving particular attention to Sir William Young's influential Account of the Black Charaibs, long regarded as the seminal text on the Black Caribs. It presents an overview of the shifting theoretical discourses around race that inform Brunias's representation of Red and Black Caribs. Paintings such as Family of Charaibs reinforced colonialists' assessments of the Red Caribs as not only the true Indians, but the good ones as well.

in Colouring the Caribbean
Representing Africans and Afro-Creoles in the Anglo-American world

This chapter considers Agostino Brunias's portrayal of presumably enslaved dark-skinned Africans and Afro-Creoles. It evaluates Brunias's depictions of Africans and Afro-Creoles in light of the work of George Robertson and Isaac Mendes Belisario, two artists working in the colonial West Indies to whom Brunias is often compared. Robertson creates a mythic, ahistorical Arcadian landscape that disguises the colonial power that it implicitly supports. Brunias paints a definitively colonial space that underscores the merger of Africa and Europe. The chapter discusses Brunias's Handkerchief Dance on the Island of Dominica relative to two examples from North America, an unknown artist's eighteenth-century watercolour known as Plantation Scene and Christian Mayr's Kitchen Ball at White Sulphur Springs. In Robertson's work, the presence of black-skinned figures identifies Jamaica as part of the British colonial world even though the conventions of the artist's chosen aesthetic preclude any real evidence of the labour that necessitates this presence.

in Colouring the Caribbean
Mixed-race Venuses and Vixens as the fruits of imperial enterprise

This chapter underscores the sexually charged nature of Agostino Brunias's West Indian paintings, probing in particular, the pronounced confluence of colonialism and the fetishisation of the mixed-race female body evident in these works. Like the Caribbean fruits and flowers with which the paintings identify them, they are simply rewards of the colonial enterprise. The chapter analyses two prominent eighteenth-century constructions of mixed-race female sexuality evident in Brunias's West Indian pictures: the Venus and the Vixen. In addition to the obvious references to Venus imagery, Brunias also employs the Roman myth of Actaeon and Diana as an iconographic and ideological model for the painting. Like the figures in William Blake's unquestionably imperialist and unequivocally erotic continental allegory, Brunias's brown Venuses posit an implicit analogy between female flesh and physical geography, reinforcing British power over both.

in Colouring the Caribbean
Brunias’s ‘ladies’ of ambiguous race

This chapter argues that while Agostino Brunias's paintings were meant to contribute to the natural history discourse and to the visualisation of social and racial classification in the Caribbean in practice, they potentially function in an entirely different and complicated way. In 1983, Christie's offered a group of Brunias paintings at an auction of 'Important English Pictures'. Included among these was a work that the auction house referred to as Two Ladies Attended by a Negro Servant. The chapter looks at Brunias's work differently from other scholars, using his depiction of ambiguously raced women to consider how the artist's images might be understood to challenge the idea of racial categories as they work to support them. Like casta paintings and ethnographic images, other colonial artwork that sought to make order of the 'new' peoples of the so-called New World typically depended on the use of text.

in Colouring the Caribbean
The afterlife of Brunias’s imagery

Archival evidence reveals doubts about the buttons' attribution to Agostino Brunias as early as 1946. In investigating the credibility of the buttons' provenance, both their attribution to Brunias and their connection to Toussaint L'Ouverture must be scrutinised. Ironically, Brunias, the painter of the plantocracy, is responsible for images that frequently illustrate the 'resistance to Anglo-American domination' reinforced by Domingan refugees in New Orleans. In museums and academic texts, Brunias's imagery continues to be used to represent the former French colony. The Brooklyn museum understood Brunias's picture as offering a unique representation of Afro-Caribbean agency and elite social status, an image of a woman of African descent in a position of power. Brunias's Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape presents an intriguing colonial Caribbean revision of the English conversation piece.

in Colouring the Caribbean