The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles will jointly own Sir Joshua Reynolds’s “Portrait of Omai” (c. 1776). Announced on Friday, nearly two weeks after the United Kingdom extended a temporary export ban on the life-sized portrait, the acquisition will make the painting publicly available.
In a rarely seen move, the museums will split the cost of the approximately $62 million painting. In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, NPG says it has secured most of the funds needed, with an estimated $1.2 million left to fundraise. Once purchased, the painting will alternate between the United States and the United Kingdom for public exhibition, research, and conservation care — however, the institutions have yet to finalize further details on joint custody arrangements.
The 18th-century portrait features the first man of Polynesian descent to visit the UK. Mai or Ma’i came to Great Britain in 1774, during Captain Cook’s second voyage from Tahiti. According to a Smithsonian Magazine excerpt of Hampton Sides’s nonfiction The Exotic, published in 2021, the Pacific Island man may not have been as regal as Reynolds portrays. Although a celebrity in Great Britain, Mai may have been a commoner who asked to travel to England. His story mirrors many in England’s colonizer past of a person of color being paraded and exhibited as an oddity.
“I’ve come to think of his journey as an allegory of colonialism and its unintended consequences: England, by showing off her riches and advancements and then sending Mai back with a trove of mostly meaningless treasures, had doomed him to a jumbled, deracinated existence,” writes Sides.
In March 2022, the UK placed a temporary export ban on the painting, claiming “Portrait of Omai” provided “important insight into the British reception, understanding, and representation of people from beyond Europe at that time in history.” The ban would give NPG time to raise enough money for the painting to remain in the UK.
“The portrait is unique in both British and world culture and yet has never been in a museum collection: now it has the potential to be in two, one facing the Pacific from where Mai came, and the other only yards from Reynolds’ studio, where it was painted,” NPG Director Nicholas Cullinan said in a statement.