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The African Presence in Spain

Exploring the limited visual representation of enslaved and freed people in Imperial Spain and the links to contemporary racism in the Hispanic world.

This is a photo of artist Juan de Pareja.
Diego Velázquez, Juan de Pareja, c.1650, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Very little is known about the presence of two million African people and their decline from the 16th to 18th centuries in the Iberian Peninsula, the mountainous region of Spain and Portugal. Over the past 20 years, Carmen Fracchia, Professor of Hispanic Art History, Department of Cultures and Languages, has addressed the historical amnesia about the presence of these African people in Habsburg Spain and the neglected visual archive created by transatlantic slavery, to explore the origins of contemporary racism; and the place of slavery through religious imagery, portraiture and self-portraiture. Habsburg was the Spain of the 16th and 17th centuries (1516–1700) when it was ruled by kings from the House of Habsburg, one of the most influential royal houses of Europe.

What we're researching:

This pioneering research has considered the high number of Black African people in Spain and their limited visibility in the visual form (paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints), in the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile during the Habsburg dynasty. The research is being guided by the meticulous archival study of visual and textual sources in Europe and the US, strengthened by three collaborative networks about Slavery and Abolitionism with the University of Granada (Spain), sponsored by the Spanish government, and, by appointments as visiting scholar at the Department of Social Anthropology of the University of Granada (Spain); at the Department of Media Studies at the University Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid (Spain); in the Department of Philosophy and Literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Mexico City); and more recently in the Department of History of Art and Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago (USA) and in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh (USA).

The research opened a new path in the area of black visual art in early modern Spain and in a new field of enquiry in the area of race studies; and generated a number of major projects outside the academic world:

▪ From May 2017, Professor Fracchia has been providing research and sole consultancy to the TV series Mastery by scriptwriters M. Newman and J. R. Heinz (Los Angeles, USA). It addresses the story of the Afro-Spanish painter Juan de Pareja (1606-1670) who was the enslaved assistant to painter Diego Velázquez at the Spanish court, and who managed to forge an independent and successful career there. The script is currently being adapted by a Hollywood production team.

▪ In October 2020, Professor Fracchia started providing research to the London-based film Catalina adapted from the original play. The plan is to shoot the film in Summer 2021. She will also be providing research to inform the two-weeks exhibition Catalina at the Old Royal Naval College and Ludlow Castle in April 2021 and will be supporting Iberian and Latin American Studies PhD student, Michael Pope, in the running of workshops and talks for schools and local communities.

▪ In October 2020, Professor Fracchia was invited to be part of the framing of the exhibition of Juan de Pareja's paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for Spring 2023.

Earlier this year, she was also recorded as one of the 'talking head' experts throughout the episode dedicated to Velazquez's Rokeby Venus, by Channel 5, as part of a documentary series called 'The World's Greatest Paintings' with Andrew Marr.

“It is clear the current climate has invigorated the desire to understand not only our collective history but also an accurate representation of the history of Black people. I hope, from my research, to find out if there were other cases like Juan de Pareja’s and to reveal the processes by which Afro-Hispanic enslaved and liberated people became artists.”

What the impact will be:

Professor Fracchia is developing current research which stems from her book on the case of the Afro-Spanish Painter Juan de Pareja in Seventeenth-Century Spain. Her aim is to reconstruct Pareja’s network of art clients and fellow artists to explore (a) the making of a successful enslaved painter in seventeenth-century Spain, at the centre of the Iberian Empire and (b) the African contribution to Hispanic culture.

Since the publication of her book,  'Black but Human': Slavery and Visual Arts in Habsburg Spain, 1480-1700, in 2019, there has been renewed interest in the subject which has subsequently led to an intensive international book tour at world-class academic and art establishments. Professor Fracchia says, “It is clear the current climate has invigorated the desire to understand not only our collective history but also an accurate representation of the history of Black people. I hope, from my research, to find out if there were other cases like Juan de Pareja’s and to reveal the processes by which Afro-Hispanic enslaved and liberated people became artists.”

This is a painting The Calling of St Matthew by Juan de Pareja
Juan de Pareja, The Calling of St Matthew, 1661. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Further Information

Read recent blogs from Professor Fracchia on her recent book tour and on the links between art, slavery, history and modern society.

Watch a video of Professor Fracchia speaking about The African Presence in Spain from the 16th to 18th Centuries.

Watch Professor Fracchia present her book  'Black but Human': Slavery and Visual Arts in Habsburg Spain, 1480-1700 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), in an evening of Poetry, Art and Art History with visual artist Victoria Burgher, poets Kadija Sesay MBE and Mark Thompson, University of Lincoln, UK to celebrate Black History Month.

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