Books, Photos & Writings of Arturo Schomburg Featured in Upcoming Exhibition at The Met

By Lisa Herndon, Manager, Schomburg Communications and Publications
March 21, 2023
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
A headshot of Dr. Vanessa K. Valdés on left. In center, a wall in the center of the room in a brown-orange color with the words Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter, On  right, 3 black and white photographs on a black colored page of a scrapbook with handwritten messages. Below, a book in a glass display case.
Arturo Schomburg biographer Dr. Vanessa K. Valdés co-curated the upcoming exhibition, Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which opens on April 3. Materials from the Center’s collections on its founder Arturo Schomburg are featured.

Credits: Photo of Dr. Vanessa K. Valdés by Geoffrey Glick. Installation view of Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter, on view April 3– July 16, 2023 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen, courtesy of The Met, NYPL Digital Collections Image 58508429, and Lisa Herndon.

Arturo Schomburg, founder of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, continues to inspire and inform curators and scholars nearly a century after his death. 

Widely considered one of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century, Mr. Schomburg (1874–1938) was renowned among his peers such as Dr. Alain Locke and James Weldon Johnson for his extensive collection of books, art works, manuscripts, ephemera, and more documenting Black and Hispanic people across the African Diaspora. 

Some of Mr. Schomburg’s writings, books, and personal photos are featured as part of the upcoming exhibition Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Opening April 3 and running through July 16, it discusses the role of enslaved artisanal labor and a multiracial society in Spain during the 1600s.

Mr. Schomburg, who was of African and Puerto Rican descent, traveled to Spain with the profits from the sale of his “seed collection” to The New York Public Library. Materials in the collection numbered over 2,500 volumes, 1,100 pamphlets, and many valuable prints. His items added to the framework for discussing Pareja (c. 1608–1670), an enslaved man who worked under famed painter Diego Velázquez (c. 1599–1660) for over two decades before becoming an artist in his own right and offered insight to Black communities in Europe. 

Dr. Vanessa K. Valdés, author of Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Schomburg and associate provost for Community Engagement at The City College of New York, co-curated the exhibition. Additionally, she wrote the essay “Arturo Schomburg, Juan de Pareja, and Afro-Hispanic Studies” for The Met’s exhibition catalog and served as its co-editor. 

Below, Dr. Valdés discusses how she collaborated with the Schomburg Center, how items from Mr. Schomburg’s collection proved to be invaluable resources to expand the conversation on Pareja, and offers valuable insights on 17th–century Spain.

Responses are lightly edited.

A painting of Juan de Pareja
Juan de Pareja, who was enslaved, worked under Spanish painter Diego Velázquez for over 20 years before becoming an artist in his own right. Velázquez most likely executed this portrait of Pareja in 1650, according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art's website.

Please tell me about the exhibition Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter, and why you wanted to include materials about Mr. Schomburg.

This exhibition is the first to tell the story of Juan de Pareja, the subject of Diego Velázquez's most famous portrait, a man of African descent in early modern European dress who seems to look directly at the viewer. That portrait arrived in New York in 1971, but most people don't know anything about the man himself: they don't know his name, that he was enslaved, that Velázquez was his enslaver, and that after he was freed from enslavement, he would go on to experience his own success as a painter.

They also don't know that his story in New York begins decades before 1971, with Arturo Schomburg: he began writing about Juan de Pareja in the 1910s in his effort to expand knowledge about Black communities in early modern Europe. When he sold his collection to the 135th Street branch, he used those earnings to visit European museums and archives and his first stop was Spain. Mr. Schomburg writes a series of articles about his time in Spain, including one called "In Quest of Juan de Pareja." where he details going to the Prado in Madrid to see Pareja's paintings.

What items from the Schomburg Center’s collections are included and how did they assist with telling about Pareja and set the scene for Spain in the 1600s?

In the first gallery of the exhibition, we have included works by men of African descent such as Leo Africanus and Junilius Africanus, who wrote during the Roman Empire, and Juan Latino, a professor of Classics at the University of Granada in the 16th century. 

We also have works about the continent of Africa published during this early modern moment, works by Hiob Ludolf and Emmanuel Schelstrate. Finally, we have works about the Black communities in Spain. 

Of the eight works included here, six belonged to his seed donation prior to his trip. Finally, along the walls of the gallery, we have included photographs from Mr. Schomburg's personal album, the ones that he took walking the streets of Spain detailing where communities of African descent had lived and had worshiped.

How did you work with Center staff and what roles did they play as you curated Juan de Pareja?

In December 2020, David Pullins, Associate Curator of European Paintings at The Met, reached out to me for a conversation: he had read Mr. Schomburg's article about looking for Juan de Pareja and had read my biography of Mr. Schomburg. A few months later he invited me to co-curate this exhibition with him, and he has been a true partner throughout this process, not only in terms of navigating all of the departments of The Met but including me in curatorial and design decisions of the entire exhibition. 

We assembled the advisory committee together, edited the exhibition catalog together, worked together on programming, and consulted each other on the works we were going to include. (Tammi Lawson, curator of the Center’s Art and Artifacts Division, served on the museum’s Planning Committee. Additionally, Barrye Brown, associate curator of the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, narrated a portion of the exhibition’s audio guide.) 

For my part, I wanted the Schomburg piece to be as seamless as possible with the exhibition, and I wanted to highlight that he was someone who had studied these populations more than a century ago.

Please share a story about a moment that stood out as you worked on this exhibition. 

I have lots of favorite moments, honestly—my first conversation with David is a favorite because this exhibition will shed light on the history of communities of African descent living in 16th and 17th-century Spain.

People will learn about Europe's role, and more specifically Spain's role, in the history of enslavement: the vast majority of us in the United States only know about the British role in enslavement, but don't know about the Spanish.

They will learn about Juan de Pareja: Mr. Schomburg wrote that he wished that Black communities in the United States would know that this man and his artistic excellence is also part of our collective heritage. Finally, many more people will learn about Arturo Schomburg, and for that, I am ecstatic.

Three black and white photographs on a black colored page of a scrapbook with handwritten messages.
These pictures are views of the section of Seville, Spain, where the remaining descendants of 16th-century African slaves lived. The photographs are from Arturo Schomburg's collection.
Schomburg Center founder Arturo Schomburg is standing on railroad track
Writings by Arturo Schomburg such as 'The Negro Digs Up His Past' and 'In Quest of Juan de Pareja' are featured in the upcoming exhibition Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter, which provide deeper insights on Pareja and 17th-century Spain.

What would you like visitors to take away after learning about Mr. Schomburg, viewing Juan de Pareja, and reading your essay, “Arturo Schomburg, Juan de Pareja, and Afro-Hispanic Studies,” in the catalog?

When Arturo Schomburg himself was writing in the 1910s and 1920s, he was writing in a moment when the dominant society was ignoring and negating Black history and Black people's contributions to history. He was working to expand people's awareness of how very expansive Black cultures were, and for how long the interactions with Europe and the African continent had been. We include quotes from his writing throughout this exhibition so that, in many ways, he serves as a guide to what we, the viewers, are seeing. 

If there is anything you’d like to add that I have not asked, please feel free to do so.

One of my greatest joys in life is introducing people to the life of Arturo Schomburg and his living legacy that is the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture: with this exhibition, I hope that people learn about a part of him they may not have previously known, and I hope that many more people come to know the jewel of this city that is the Schomburg Center. 


Updated on April 7, 2023: Dr. Valdés, alongside Dr. Nicholas R. Jones (Yale), author of the prize-winning Staging Habla de Negros: Radical Performances of the African Diaspora in Early Modern Spain, and Dr. Eva María Copeland, associate professor of Spanish at Dickinson College, discussed the presence of the African diaspora in Spain and Arturo Schomburg’s travel to Seville 1926. Watch the April 5 conversation, “Modern Spain and the Early Travels of Arturo Schomburg,” online