In celebration of the reopening of Tate Britain, Tate Etc. invited a selection of artists from around the world to choose a favoured work from a fellow artist currently on display. Here, Peruvian artist Sandra Gamarra discusses John Simpson’s Head of a Man

  • John Simpson, 'Head of a Man (?Ira Frederick Aldridge)', exhibited 1827

    John Simpson
    Head of a Man (?Ira Frederick Aldridge) exhibited 1827
    Oil paint on canvas
    support: 733 x 562 x 18 mm
    Presented by Robert Vernon 1847

    View the main page for this artwork

There is a popular saying in Peru, ‘el que no tiene de inga tiene de mandinga’ (roughly: ‘he who has no Inca blood, has African blood’). The phrase alludes to the ethnic composition of the population, where most individuals are of indigenous, European and African descent. In a racist society, where many do not want to recognise their background, the saying reminds everyone of their mestizo origins.

In the 1980s there was a soap opera on national TV called Matalaché. An adaptation of the 1928 novel by Enrique López Albújar, the show told the story of a mulatto slave in a tannery in northern Peru during the 1810s, who enjoyed certain privileges because of his ethnic background until he fell in love with the daughter of the owner. He was killed and dumped in a large vat used for the manufacture of soap. In the TV version, the actor who played the role of Matalaché needed extra make-up to be sufficiently ‘black’. This upset the black community of Peru, who demanded an authentic representation.

Head of a Man, painted in 1827, shows the bust of a black slave, an anonymous man in an anonymous space, for which the American actor Ira Frederick Aldridge (born a free man) probably served as a model. During that time in London, the anti-slavery debate was in full swing. To paint a free black man as a slave exposed the cynical nature of slavery. The TV version of Matalaché doesn’t include a ‘true’ mulatto, not for the lack of actors in Peru, but maybe because in a country where almost everyone comes from a mixed background, the impersonation of another race is the only way to recognise it.

Sandra Gamarra (born 1972) is a Peruvian artist based in Madrid