As COVID-19 closed in on the United Kingdom in mid-March, opera singer and BBC broadcaster Peter Brathwaite was abruptly left with time he didn’t want: all of his upcoming performances were canceled until August. He kept busy practicing and researching for future shows, but was still “twiddling his thumbs a bit.” But then he came across the Getty Museum Challenge—an invitation to recreate a famous work of art using props from around your home; a fellow opera singer had posted a photo on Twitter of herself as Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. Braithwaite thought, what can I recreate?
While browsing for images, he found A Black Servant, England, an 18th-century painting by an unknown artist. “I’ve got some clothes that are that color,” he thought, “and I could take the photo in my window.” Substituting a stuffed sheep for the dog, he faithfully emulated the rest of the painting, from the draped green curtain to the smile on the subject’s face.
That was the first of more than fifteen art recreations Brathwaite has posted on Twitter, each one featuring a Black subject. He wrote, “Rediscovering #blackportraiture through @GettyMuseum challenge” in each caption—an acknowledgment of his public goal to remind people that Black subjects do exist in portraiture, and that their stories deserve to be told. The photos are also part of a personal endeavor: to connect with his own ancestors through Black portraiture.
“The Getty challenge is a process of rediscovery,” Brathwaite said. “I hadn’t seen many recreations of pieces of art with Black people before I started to do it myself. And it’s an acknowledgment of what a great challenge it is in the way it’s opened up a whole new world of creativity and culture for me.”
Two weeks before he discovered the challenge, Brathwaite had started researching his family tree, particularly his relatives who lived in Barbados and the West Indies. Although he unearthed portraits of white ancestors, he found no images of his Black ancestors; a consequence of having a Barbadian, West Indian background, one that was mixed race both consensually and by force. He also came across one white ancestor who had argued in court that slavery was “the only option” for Black people.
“That’s very hard to take,” he said.
Brathwaite saw the art recreation challenge as an opportunity to explore his own story and honor his Black ancestors, who hadn’t had the opportunity to sit for a portrait. Brathwaite’s subjects ranged from noblemen of high status to servants portrayed as exotic “accessories.” But rather than precisely imitating the details of each painting, he took liberties that further connected him with his own heritage and empower his subjects.
He altered the paintings to include traditional Caribbean clothes, tools, and food; a book of Barbados folk songs; African hair products; his grandmother’s patchwork quilt, and his grandfather’s cou-cou stick (reminiscent of a cricket bat, it’s used for cooking the Barbados national dish). He even altered the expression on his subject’s face or body position. For example, he made a subtle but powerful change in his recreation of Albert Schindler’s Portrait of a Gardener and Horn Player in the Household of Emperor Francis I.
“Just so there’s no doubt this person is subservient, a picture of presumably his master is pinned to the wall,” said Brathwaite. “So when I recreated this one, I put the picture of my ancestor on the wall and I decided to alter the look. It’s slightly ambiguous in the original painting whether he’s looking out the window or at this picture, but I decided to fix my gaze on my ancestor. Things like that shift the balance in what has overwhelmingly been a series of images showing Black people without power.”
Once he posted a photo on Twitter alongside the original painting, the conversation began. Commenters delighted in Brathwaite’s recreations and pointed out details; his inclusion of Barbados cane sugar, his cheeky decision to swap out a chess piece for a Jenga block. Some recommended other paintings he could recreate, while others told him he helped them see a painting in a new way and expressed appreciation that he’s bringing often-overlooked Black portraiture to life.
Brathwaite pointed out that there’s a misconception in the U.K. that Black history began in England in the 1950s, with Caribbean immigrants known as the Windrush generation. His recreations lay bare the fact that Black people have been a part of the fabric of the U.K., and Europe as a whole, for hundreds of years; but their stories aren’t always told.
While he awaits the re-opening of theaters and performance venues, Brathwaite continues investigating his family tree and finding additional artworks to recreate. He’s also working on a new musical project that will feature music of enslaved communities, resurfacing their songs in much the same way the Getty challenge inspired his resurfacing of Black portraiture.
“I never imagined recreating art would be as expanding as it has become for my mind and my knowledge of paintings,” Brathwaite said. “To get inside a painting in this way, to physicalize it, is a really useful way to gain a different perspective on a work of art.”
“Once you’ve put yourself in a painting,” he said, “you view it very differently.”