Marked By Temi Odumosu
John Blanke was here. That is a fact. This African man in Tudor England left traces behind. We might imagine him treading footprints on soil. And then, intimately, like all of us, shed his sweat, dust, blood and skin in the sinews of London streets, on duty at court, and in perpetuity deep within an unmarked grave. But we encounter him first as a material memory. A bodily presence evoked on crinkled paper in paint and ink. Handmade and whispering down the ages. Such are the peculiar consequences of royal attention.
There is much we do not know: his genealogy and kinship ties, a country of origin, and migration story. In short the entire arc of a human saga. Not to mention the substance of his inner life. Hopes, ambitions, sadness, fears. Yes, boldly he petitioned an inadequate wage, but who loved him and whom did he love? Was that the name he was born with? How did he feel about life, as a singular Black man, in English court?
The archive presents John Blanke thinly, as a sketch, but still a necessary opening for us in the present. His face and words a surrogate for the lost ones. Those other souls (and their network of memories) denied the recognition that comes from acts of mark making. The name Blanke is a loaded irony. For he is the lacuna, and fills it by the same means. This is the bittersweet paradox of the Black subject in Western history and its art. To be seen and not be, concurrently.
How then do we honour the substance of a man’s entire life when there is so much we cannot really know? Sweetly, and with care and attention paid also to the silence.