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  • Zoe McDonald

Humanities on the Edge Presents: Anna Arabindan-Kesson

Hank Willis Thomas’s The Cotton Bowl (2011), located in the Sheldon Museum of Art, juxtaposes a sharecropper in a cotton field head-to-head with a football player in a three-point stance. The work is a visually alluring yet unsettling linkage of the United States’ love of the gridiron with the forced labor of the country’s centuries of slavery. The work is unsettling, and well suited for connecting the past and present. On the night of April 21, our campus art museum welcomed art historian Anna Arabindan-Kesson to do just that as she analyzed works from contemporary artists whose work engages the histories of plantations and forced labor.

Anna Arabindan-Kesson, a Princeton Art and Archaeology and African American Studies Assistant Professor, is the final speaker in Humanities on the Edge (HoE)’s “World of Migrants: Displacement, Decoloniality, Necrocapitalism” series. During UNL Modern Languages and Literatures and Ethnic Studies Associate Professor Luis Othoniel Rosa’s introduction, he observed each “World of Migrants” speaker described visual perceptions of migrants and migration, as well as blindness to such movements. Rosa connected this focus on changing ways of seeing to Arabindan-Kesson’s theory of “speculative vision,” a way to read the frequent associations of Black bodies with cotton. Within her book Black Bodies, White Gold: Art, Cotton and Commerce in the Atlantic World (2021), Anna Arabindan-Kesson examines The Cotton Bowl image, and others from contemporary Black artists, through a close focus on cotton as subject matter, medium, and commodity. Her HoE talk engages her most recent focus on plantations.

In Arabindan-Kesson’s “Plantation Imaginaries: Immigrant Forms and Forms of Enclosure” talk, she analyzed artwork from throughout the British empire as well as three contemporary artists through shifts in the ways visual artworks represent plantations, agricultural products, and non-English people. Arabindan-Kesson first described the English “picturesque” tradition of depicting plantations throughout the formerly colonized nations, including Sri Lanka, Barbados, Australia, and Jamaica. Often those works emphasize order, control, and land cleared for economic production. Usually, these works do not depict Indigenous communities or the enslaved people who worked the land.

Through a detailed analysis, Arabindan-Kesson then introduced three contemporary artists who bring viewer attention back to those who lived within landscapes before colonization, and those who more recently produce plantation products. As one example, Sri Lankan artist Hanusha Somasundaram’s work “Mother Tongue” (2016) contains letters from the Sinhala, Tamil, and English languages, requiring viewers to confront the politics of language for Sri Lankan tea workers. This and other works, Arabindan-Kesson argues, destabilize colonial histories of linguistic erasure, and also violence. These works are not post-plantation for they do not deny or move past such painful histories. The artworks also resist reinscribing a colonial understanding of plantations as sites of either sickness or wellness. Instead, these contemporary artworks call for seeing such histories to engage something else, something capable of uniting people.

Although I am no art historian, I was encouraged by the ways Anna Arabindan-Kesson described her experiences as an immigrant to establish her credibility within her readings of artworks from throughout the former British empire. When I asked her questions about her upcoming work, and her dissertation writing process, I recognized the ways many historians engage writing from analytical and poetic angles. There was something special about sitting in the campus museum listening to an eloquent professor’s detailed connections throughout art history, while also seeing work from contemporary artists who use colonial histories of erasure as the starting place for something critical yet beautiful through visual language.

Humanities on the Edge will resume in the spring of 2023. Recordings of past speakers can be found of HoE’s YouTube channel. HoE is a 12-year collaboration among Marco Abel, Roland Végso, Jeannette Jones, Luis Othoniel Rosa, and Erin Hanas with support from the Departments of English, History, Ethnic Studies, the Sheldon Museum of Art, and other supporters. Follow Humanities on the Edge on Twitter @UNLHotE, and look for posters announcing the next series theme around Andrews Hall.

Photo credit: Princeton University Department of African American Studies.

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