Museum stories
Making connections: black people and cultures in Asia

The British Museum holds a vast collection related to black heritage where many stories and perspectives of black people and cultures throughout world history can be explored. Working in the Asia Department, I would like to share some of the varied links between black history and Asia that some might find surprising. I have worked with my curatorial colleagues to select six objects that highlight these intriguing connections.

1. Chinese exports to Africa

Chinese ceramics have been exported throughout the world for hundreds of years. Glazed pottery such as this distinctive jade-green coloured bowl was popular in parts of Africa and notably used as table ware.

Stoneware bowl with green glaze and unglazed centre. Made in Longquan, China, Ming dynasty, c. 1400–1500. Found in Malindi, Kenya.

Made in China during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) this bowl was found in Malindi, on the coast of Kenya. Malindi was an important centre for trade with the Middle East but also with China and India. It is likely that this bowl travelled from its production kiln site in Longquan and passed through this successful port to enter East Africa. Chinese export porcelain was also used as architectural decoration for the face of tombs along the East African coast at Malindi and Mambrui. Longquan kilns made similar wares for the domestic market in China too.

2. Dark-skin figures in ancient China

In Tang dynasty China (AD 618–907) pottery figures of people and animals were used to furnish tombs for the deceased. The racial identity and occupation of this male tomb figurine with curly hair and dark-skin has confused scholars throughout the years. Is he African or Southeast Asian? A groom or a dancer?

Green and brown glazed earthenware figure. Made in China, Tang dynasty, AD 618–906.

In 1959, J G Mahler first referred to this figurine as being part of the ‘K’un-lun boys’. In contemporary Chinese literature, this group were described as having ‘woolly hair and black skin’ and believed to be from the Malay peninsula. However, this term was also used to describe enslaved Africans sold to China during the Tang dynasty.

It is difficult to say for sure if the figure is of African or Southeast Asian descent. However, our curators agree that his hand clenched above the shoulder suggests that he was more likely to be a drummer or a dancer at the head of a procession, instead of a groom for an elephant or lion. This figure is on display in the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia (Room 33).

3. African and Southeast Asian textile traditions

The tradition of making batik is well-known in various Southeast Asian countries. This art form of applying a wax resist prior to dyeing fabric is also very popular in West Africa, where it has influenced a variety of cultures and inspired new motifs. This cotton sarong stitched into a tube is decorated in the Javanese batik technique. Produced on the north coast of Java, it draws on patterns and symbols from a variety of sources, including, Java, India, Europe and China.

There is a similar cloth in the Museum’s collection of African textiles, which has design motifs inspired by this Javanese batik for African markets. If you compare the two cloths, you can see many similarities in design.

Sample of machine woven cotton cloth decorated using the batik method. Made in Manchester. Found in West Africa.

Interestingly, the African textile was made in Beving’s Manchester-based textile company, Blakeley & Beving Co. However, it was likely sold back to African markets where it was subsequently found in West Africa. The Charles Beving collection forms one of most important collections of 19th- and early 20th-century African textiles in the British Museum. You can find out more about some key objects in the Sainsbury African Galleries (Room 25) in this blog post.

4. North Korean art and the African-American struggle

There are many depictions of black people in North Korean art. In Africa, many of the large-scale sculptures and monuments dedicated to famous independence leaders have been made by North Korean artists. These relics of the engagement remain today as Pyongyang continues to portray warm relations with African nations through art. However, more frequently African-Americans can be seen present in North Korean propaganda imagery. It seems their presence in art is to display solidarity against inequality and American policies.

Choi Langsong and Ko Youngchol, From Mt Paektu to Mt Hanla. Linocut print, 1990.

This woodblock print in the collection shows an African-American man marching alongside Korean activist Lim Sugyong in front of the map of Korea. On 31 July 1989, the Chicago Tribune reported that Lim led a march of ‘some 300 activist from about 30 countries’. As part of the National Leaders of the University Students Association, they hold a banner that reads ‘Our nation is one. Our wish is unification’ expressing their desire for Korean unification during the 7th International Youth Student Festival, 1989.

As the composition of this print is similar to photographs of the march, while the identity of the man is still a mystery, his presence and participation is certain. Africans and African-Americans continue to appear in North Korean imagery to represent an international camaraderie.

5. Afros in Japanese art

Tetsuya Noda is a unique Japanese artist who specialises in woodblock prints and a series of silkscreened diary entries. This print from his Diary series titled Sept. 13th ’73 represents a visual snapshot of a moment in his daily life.

Noda Tetsuya (b. 1940), Diary: Sept. 13th ’73. Four-colour lithograph on Arches paper, 1973. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

At first glance, this appears to be a half-length portrait of an African-American woman wearing her hair styled in an afro, and wearing a white t-shirt with a design of a woman’s bare breasts. For me, this really invokes thoughts about second-wave feminism in the US during 1970s and the portrayal of a woman in control of her own body. The hairstyle is also evocative of the iconic image of activist Angela Davis, who wore her in a picked out afro.

However, as fascinating as this print may be, the racial identity of the woman becomes subjective and ambiguous in nature the longer you observe it. Originally, nothing was known about this young woman. However, a trip to Japan to visit the artist in October 2017 has revealed that the young woman in the image is in fact Israeli. She is the niece of a friend of the artist in Israel and she is wearing what was the latest fashion from USA.

6. African kings in Bengal

There are many stories of the African diaspora in medieval India. The reign of the Bengal Sultan Rukn al-Din Barbak Shah (1459–1474), saw the arrival of a large number of enslaved Abyssinians (from modern-day Ethiopia), as well as soldiers and military administrators, brought by the sultan to serve in his army. Some would go on to hold positions of power, including Sayf al-Din Firuz Shah who became a Bengal sultan. A former army commander, Sayf al-Din was of Ethiopian descent, and ruled from 1487 to 1489.

This fragmentary inscription, carved in a style of calligraphy typical of Bengal, bears the sultan’s titles. It reads, ‘may God perpetuate his kingdom and authority’. It comes from the doorway of one of Gaur’s most famous monuments, the Firuz Minar, from which the call to prayer was announced. The frieze is on display in the newly refurbished Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia (Room 33).

I am grateful to my colleagues Jessica Harrison-Hall (Head of China Section), Yi Chen (Curator: Early Chinese Collections), Alexandra Green (Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia), Eleanor S Hyun (Curator: Korean Collections), Timothy Clark (Head of Japanese Section), Alfred Haft (JTI Project Curator for Japanese Collections) and Imma Ramos (Curator: South Asia Collections) for their assistance in writing this post.