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Paul Mellon Centre | Working with Art: Labour, Empire and Materiality in British Art

October 1, 2021 @ 6:00 am - 7:00 pm

A Research Lunch event with Anna Arabindan-Kesson and Timothy Barringer.
This discussion focuses on meanings, and experiences, of labour and materiality in British Art. Using the representation of commodities – cotton specifically – as a starting point, this conversation considers how these themes can frame new approaches to British Art’s transatlantic, migratory and diasporic contours.
This conversation stems from research Arabindan-Kesson recently published in her latest book, Black Bodies, White Gold. In this work, she uses cotton, a commodity central to the slave trade and colonialism, as a focus for new interpretations of the way art, commerce, and colonialism were intertwined in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. In doing so, Arabindan-Kesson models an art historical approach that makes the histories of the Black diaspora central to nineteenth-century cultural production. She traces the emergence of a speculative vision that informs perceptions of Blackness in which artistic renderings of cotton—as both commodity and material—became inexorably tied to the monetary value of Black bodies. From the production and representation of “negro cloth”—the textile worn by enslaved plantation workers—to depictions of Black sharecroppers in photographs and paintings, Arabindan-Kesson demonstrates that visuality was the mechanism through which Blackness and cotton became equated as resources for extraction. In addition to interrogating the work of nineteenth-century artists, she engages with contemporary artists such as Hank Willis Thomas, Lubaina Himid, and Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, who contend with the commercial and imperial processes shaping constructions of Blackness and meanings of labor.