Anna Arabindan-Kesson is Assistant Professor of Black Diaspora Art at Princeton University. Her new book is Black Bodies, White Gold: Art, Cotton, and Commerce in the Atlantic World, and it traces the symbolic and material correlations between cotton and Black people in British and American visual culture.
What can visual art, and the study of art history, teach us about the history of Blackness?
What I try to show in my book is how art and material culture have fundamentally shaped the meanings of Blackness, its commodification, and its value in this country. But I also want to stress that while the historical artworks I discuss helped to delimit how Black communities could live, they do not adequately express the experience of Black people. They are not the whole story. That is why I use the work of contemporary Black artists from Britain and the United States to “look back” at the historical artworks and materials I work with in each chapter. These artists interrupt historical narratives – to paraphrase CLR James – and reorient their constructions of what Blackness is or could be. Their work charts the transformative possibilities of Blackness that exist in spite of, and beyond, the proscriptions of race, place, and nation.
How might you describe the relationship between the visual and the discursive? That is, how do images affect the way we think and speak about race?
I think my understanding of this relationship is collaged from both personal and academic experiences. Growing up as part of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and then as an immigrant in Australia and New Zealand, it was pretty clear how everyday perceptions of difference – how you were seen – had a direct impact on how people treated you. This was only amplified when I became a nurse and began to learn from Maori and Pacific Island women about critical race theory. The ways we think and speak about race, both in terms of our own experiences and others, are very much framed by how we see and what we see, a relationship that Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass both took seriously in their image-making and lecturing. I think it was reading Stuart Hall, that really crystallized a lot of this for me, by giving me the theory to make sense of my personal experiences. Representations, images, are a form of ideological reconstruction and they provide a language – a discourse – for explaining and understanding our reality. Just think about a book like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which taught me about how whiteness functions in shaping how Blackness (and Brownness) is perceived. I also think of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, which describes how colonial landscaping – architecturally and in images – frames our relationship to place and meanings about belonging. Being able to deconstruct these visual narratives is important because, as Gloria Anzaldüa says in her essay “La Conciencia de la Mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness,” “nothing happens in the real world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”
The title of your book plays on the title of Hank Willis Thomas’ photograph Black Hands, White Cotton. This image is featured on the cover of your book, and you return to it throughout your chapters. What first brought you to this image, and what led you to focus your project around it?
For an art historian like me, who is always looking at archival imagery and trying to find ways of writing about it without re-inscribing histories of violence, Hank’s work is both inspiring and a model. So, I was already thinking about his archival interventions, the ways he was animating history, and his engagement with the relationship between vision and value when I started writing this book. I first saw this piece when I was visiting Dr. Kalia Brooks, Hank’s frequent collaborator and cousin. It seemed to encapsulate everything I was trying to say about the relationship between Blackness and cotton, between labor and landscape, between visuality and materiality, and between ways of seeing and forms of extraction.
You use the term “speculative vision” to describe the ways in which both cotton and Black bodies came to be seen primarily “through the lens of profit.” How does this economic vision correlate with visual representations?
An enslaved person’s market value was often contingent on the price of cotton, and the amount of cotton they might pick. What I suggest is that this economic value influenced the social meanings and value attached to Blackness and Black people during and after slavery (and still today). Black people still had to prove themselves in certain ways, demonstrate their “usefulness” and their productivity as potential citizens. So, I try to explain how this way of seeing and understanding Blackness that was extractive – that show people and places as resources, essentially – influence meanings about human value (social and otherwise). And what I try to really drive home is that this way of seeing is embedded in art history. So, on the one hand, this economic vision is demonstrated in the subject of the images I describe – plantations, cotton fields, scenes of labor and economic gain (such as markets and the auctioning of enslaved people). We see it in the ways that art production was based on the profits of slavery. But I also think we can see this economic vision in how we think about value in art history. We ascertain the value of an artwork through visual assessment. So, for example, I make a correlation between this form of assessment and the way enslaved people were visually assessed. My point really is that we have to rethink art history’s reliance on the ocular to produce meaning, and address its relationship to the ways Blackness has been constructed and valued.
Resisting this cotton-driven speculative vision, you pose “another kind of speculative vision,” which is a “speculative approach to archives themselves” in your study of art history. What does this approach entail?
For me, this approach is inspired by artists like Lubaina Himid, Hank Willis Thompson, Yinka Shonibare, and Leonardo Drew, all of whom work with archival materials to construct alternative narratives about the past and imagine alternative futures for us. It involves addressing what isn’t in the archive, as much as what is, and starting with and working from these spaces of erasure rather than attempting to necessarily “fill” them. As art historians we often want to be able to present a clear view into the past, to know and see what happened. But this is not what I want to do here: I am also inspired by scholars like Saidiya Hartman and Tina Campt, who work with the silences and losses of the archive. They are particularly attentive to the harm that can be caused by trying to recoup what is lost, while also narrating beautiful stories of what might have been. Like Deborah Thomas has also said, rather than attempting to be an eyewitness, we need to approach the archives as a witness. And so, one way I try to do that is by addressing the multi-sensorial dimensions of archival objects. I think about, for example, the ways we can use cloth to talk about the experience of working with, being clothed by, and resisting the effects of cotton. In many ways these scholars and artists are interested in our viewing positions now and make us aware of where we are looking from, and why. These approaches to the past are historically grounded and emphasize the radical nature of Black (and Brown, and Indigenous) acts of survivance, forms of freedom, and modes of aesthetic production. These approaches to the past take full account of how these histories shape our present, but work to dismantle them so we can imagine and build different futures.
In your introduction, you write about the relevance of your project to the systemic, racialized violence highlighted through last summer’s protests for George Floyd and the ongoing COVID pandemic. On another level, how might your book speak to a nation wherein cotton is still a prominent aesthetic, particularly at plantation weddings and as a decoration in many Southern homes?
Cotton is a commodity, a material, that has become everyday; it’s something we’ve seen and see so much. And this ubiquity is part of what makes it such a prominent aesthetic – as if its hypervisibility can empty it of its meanings. I’ve seen cotton used as decoration in bars back home in Australia, which is ironic given that some southern cotton planters moved to the northeast of Australia after the Civil War to set up plantations there, and Australia’s sugar plantations were also supported by US plantation money and worked by enslaved South Sea Island people. But to me, cotton is saturated with associations of race and slavery, exploitation, and terror, and it also saturates our view of the past and the meanings we have made about whose lives matter. And so, what my book tries to do is trace how these meanings and associations have become embedded in cotton and show how they still form part of the “look, the feel, the touch” of cotton. I hope that after reading this book, people won’t be able to look at cotton in the same way, but I also hope they’ll better understand how things – materials, artworks, objects – influence the way we see, perceive and care for each other. It’s only once we understand the histories behind how we see, that we can start to see differently.