Re-imagining Cole

'This is the only image of Cole'. That's the caveat I append to the caricature image of Christian Frederick Cole, the University of Oxford's first Black African Scholar when I use the image (above, centre) to illustrate a lecture or write an article about him.

 

In 2017, the picture was widely used in media promotion of the unveiling of the memorial plaque to Cole, at University College.  Every time I saw a press piece about the plaque with the image of Cole as a 'minstrel' adjacent to it, I cringed. Then I started to wonder, why is this caricature, along with other caricature images, the only portrayal of Cole? Who produced it, and for what purpose?

 

Progressing from these questions and thinking more broadly, I considered Cole's presence in Oxford, fifty years after the introduction of photography in 1839. Is there a photograph or portrait of him? I considered why Cole's achievements were portrayed publicly in the form of parody when his contemporaries were commemorated through portraits or statues.

 

My initial thoughts, reflections and questions about Cole's imagery developed into a detailed study delving through archives and photographic catalogues of cartoons, caricatures and 19th-century portraits. I looked at the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, held at the Bodleian Libraries.

 

The collection is one of the largest and most important compilations of printed ephemera in the world and reflects types of ephemera produced from all periods, especially from the 19th century.  I looked at the section on 'Minstrels' as the caricature of Cole has a strong resemblance to 'negro minstrels' popular at the time. The collection provided a fascinating source of contextual and background information.

This research formed the foundation for the Re-Imagining Cole symposium.  It brought together a range of audiences to discuss and debate Cole's imagery.  The symposium started the conversation highlighting that Cole is not only an Oxford story but a global story.

The Re-Imagining Cole symposium examined the background, context and depictions of previously unseen caricatures of Cole, held at the Bodleian Libraries. It considered why Cole’s achievements were portrayed in the form of parody when his contemporaries were commemorated through portraits or statues. The symposium also examined broader issues of race and representation in portrait art and caricatures.

 

The morning session commenced with scene-setting:

  • the history of caricatures, Africans in caricatures;

  • an introduction to Cole to illustrate how his life intersected the complex intertwining of education, politics and race in the early twentieth-century exploring and examining the difficulties and barriers he encountered as a student at the illustrious University; the exploration of Cole’s images, and why these are thought to be the only images that exist.

 

The afternoon session posed the questions:

  • should Cole’s image be re-imagined, if so, why?

  • If an image of Cole is reimagined, what medium would be most appropriate and fitting to communicate Cole’s significant achievements?

 

Read the full symposium report

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