Seen and Unseen: Depictions of Africans in Qajar Art and Visual Culture

In a photo album formerly owned by an Armenian family living in Qajar Iran we see a full-size portrait of a military officer. A medal is pinned to his chest and a sword is attached to his side. It is a very young man, who faces the camera and the viewer with an insecure gaze. The caption identifies him as an African officer in Zill al-Sultan’s service. The photograph most likely depicts a manumitted slave.
Painted and photographed depictions of African slaves in Qajar art, some stereotypical, others individualized depictions, raise not only important questions about the producers and consumers of these images but also illuminate the system of class and race in Qajar Iran. This is a topic, which has received relatively little attention even though a wealth of material exists. This paper considers the background of the objects and portrayed individuals, as well as related questions of race, gender, and class.
In the first part of my paper I will focus on typical scenes showing African men and women in Qajar photographs, paintings and lacquer works, and the relationship between race and gender in these artworks. While the majority of individualized photographs and artworks feature African men, a significantly smaller number of painted and photographed portraits of women exist as well. However, at the same time when the individual depiction of African women was consciously limited, stereotypical depictions of African women as wet nurses or housemaids in paintings became a more and more popular trope. I will analyze the social, cultural and religious reasons for this seemingly contradictory development.
In the second part of the paper I will focus on the depiction of manumitted slaves. I will analyze painted and photographed portraiture of former African slaves and focus on the case study of the unnamed Ethiopian officer of Zill al-Sultan’s army. Last but not least I will discuss the absence of depictions of female manumitted slaves.
By analyzing paintings, lacquer works, lithographs and photographs, this paper will investigate issues of individuality and stereotypes in the depiction of slaves and former slaves of African origin and demonstrate how art work depicting Africans can illustrate and illuminate the subtleties and intricacies of the construction of class and race in Qajar Iran.