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Working with Art: Labour, Empire and Materiality in British Art

Research Lunch – Anna Arabindan-Kesson, Timothy Barringer

  • 1 October 2021
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm

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.


Image caption: James Richard Barfoot, Progress of Cotton: 1 – Cotton Plantation, 1840, 1 of a set of 12 lithographs, 34.5 x 48.8 cm. Digital image courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery (Public Domain)

About the speakers

  • Headshot of woman against stone wall.

    Anna Arabindan-Kesson is Assistant Professor of Black Diaspora art with a joint appointment in the Departments of African American Studies and Art and Archaeology at Princeton University. Born in Sri Lanka, she completed undergraduate degrees in New Zealand and Australia, and was a nurse before becoming an art historian. Anna writes and teaches about African American, Caribbean, and British art, with an emphasis on histories of race, empire, migration and medicine in the long nineteenth century. Her first book is called Black Bodies, White Gold: Art, Cotton and Commerce in the Atlantic World, and was published by Duke University Press in Spring 2021.

  • Tim Barringer headshot.

    Timothy Barringer grew up in Yorkshire and completed his PhD at the University of Sussex. After working at the V&A and University of Birmingham, he moved in 1998 to Yale University where he is now Paul Mellon Professor. His research focuses on questions of class, race and empire in British art, the art of the British Empire and of the United States. His books include Reading the Pre-Raphaelites (1999; new edition, 2012) and Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain (2005). With colleagues he has co-edited collections of essays including Colonialism and the Object (1998); Art and the British Empire (2007) and Victorian Jamaica (2018). He was co-curator of American Sublime (2002); Art and Emancipation in Jamaica (2007); Before and After Modernism: Byam Shaw, Rex Vicat Cole and Yinka Shonibare (2010); Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (2012); Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings (2018), Unto this Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin (2019–20) and Radical Victorians (2019–21). His is finishing books titled Broken Pastoral: Art and Music in Britain, Gothic Revival to Punk Rock and Global Landscape: British Art in the Age of Empire, based on the Paul Mellon lectures given in London in 2019.