Ben Okri Poem On Ayuba Suleiman Diallo Unveiled At NPG

Ben Okri  has unveiled his poem (see below) dedicated to William Hoare’s compelling portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, the earliest known British oil portrait of a freed slave. This is also t he first portrait in this country to honour an African subject as an individual and equal. An educated man from a family of Muslim clerics in West Africa, whose family traded cattle and other commodities including slaves, in 1731 Diallo was taken into slavery and sent to work on a tobacco plantation in America. By his own enterprise and piety, and assisted by a series of strokes of fortune, Diallo arrived in London in 1733 where he mixed with high and intellectual society, was introduced at Court and was bought out of slavery by public appeal. After nearly a year in England, he was one of the few victims of the transatlantic slave trade to return to his family in Africa.
The portrait returns to the Gallery for the first time since a year-long British tour in which Okri embarked on a series of conversations to explore the painting and its impact on audiences in London, Liverpool, South Shields and Leicester. Footage of Okri’s sessions will be available to visitors as part of the innovative display which also includes the writer performing his newly commissioned poem.
The portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by William Hoare (1733) is on long-term loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London, from the Orientalist Museum, Doha. Since June 2012 the portrait has been touring the country, with special displays at three of the Gallery’s regional partners: Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum, South Shields Museum and Art Gallery and New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester.
Ben Okri was born in Nigeria in 1959, and now lives in England. At once a poet, a fiction writer and an essayist, he is best known for his novel The Famished Road, for which he won the Booker Prize in 1991. Star Book, a novel dealing with the subject of the slave trade and art, was published by 2007. His latest book of fiction is entitledTales of Freedom (2009), and a collection of essays, A Time for New Dreams, was published in 2011. His latest volume of poems Wild was published in 2012.
The national tour and new Gallery display have been made possible by the generosity of Thomson Reuters, the Qatar Museums Authority and Individual Gallery Supporters. The display and its interpretation and the complementary series of talks and events are funded by the American Friends of the National Portrait Gallery, including an In Conversation between Ben Okri and Gallery Trustee, curator and historian Gus Casely-Hayford.
Dr Lucy Peltz, Curator of 18th Century Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘This portrait of Diallo is beautiful, compelling and surprisingly modern. Inspired by his dialogue with audiences in Liverpool, South Shields, Leicester and London, Ben Okri’s new poem unlocks the enigma of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo.’
Diallo’s Testament
by Ben Okri
Who can read the riddle of life
In this portrait of mine?
I am one on whom providence
Has worked its magic reversals.
Behind me are silent stories
Like a storm. I have worn
History round my neck like chains.
Freedom is a difficult lesson to learn.
I have tasted the language of death
Till it became the water of life.
I have shaped a little my canvas of time.
I have crossed seas of fires
And seen with these African eyes
The one light which neither empires
Nor all the might of men obscure.
Man is the sickness, God the cure.
© Ben Okri, 2nd June 2013. All rights reserved
Ben Okri on Ayuba Suleiman Diallo: A Dialogue Across Time 20 September 2013 – 16 March 2014
Room 11, Eighteenth-Century Galleries, Second Floor, National Portrait Gallery, Admission free

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