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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Threads of empire: The visual economy of the cotton trade in the Atlantic ocean world, 1840-1900
by Arabindan-Kesson, Anna Evangeline, Ph.D., Yale University, 2014, 129; 3580726
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation examines the art and material culture of the Anglo-American cotton trade in the nineteenth century to consider how these transnational processes influenced different modes of production: artistic, industrial and textile. The Anglo-American cotton trade's importance in the nineteenth century rested on the Atlantic slave trade and its aftereffects. Therefore this study foregrounds the centrality of African American history and culture to the trade's structures of exchange, encounter and transmission as they inflected nineteenth-century British and American artistic production and industrial expansion. In four chapters beginning in 1840 and ending at the beginning of the twentieth century, I juxtapose the work of contemporary artists with historical case studies. I argue that these contemporary artists – Leonardo Drew, Lubaina Himid and Yinka Shonibare – offer new interpretive frameworks for approaching the transactional and transnational contexts of nineteenth-century British, American and African American art and material culture.

Chapter one focuses on the relationship between plantations in the American South and New England, using prints, paintings and textiles that reveal the plantation and factory to be connected landscape. I trace how cotton's movement shaped constructions around place, and materialized connections between communities of labor in antebellum America. Chapter two opens with Lubaina Himid's (2002) and expands the historical relationship of plantation and factory out across the Atlantic. Centralizing Eyre Crowe's Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia (1861) and the export of printed cotton from Manchester, it examines the convergence of the trade in cotton with the trade in slaves. It considers how these market relations shaped the commodification of the enslaved body, British experiences of factory labor, and Manchester production of printed cloth for consumers across the globe. Chapter three begins with Leonardo Drew's Number 25 to consider the tensions between materiality and abstraction in the production and commodification of cotton and art objects. I then examine paintings by Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873), and Winslow Homer, The Cotton Pickers, (1876) to explore how these artists negotiated the status of cotton as a global commodity and grappled with the changing networks, of labor, production and commerce in postbellum America. Eyre Crowe's painting of factory workers in Lancashire, The Dinner Hour, Wigan (1874) concludes this section, which examines how the international market for cotton was influencing the representation and experience of industry in north west England. My final chapter, commencing with an installation by Yinka Shonibare MBE Scramble for Africa (2003), focuses on the commercial logic and visual rhetoric of three Southern international exhibitions. I examine how these exhibitions constructed the South – through visions of cotton plantations and black cotton pickers – as a space for domestic colonial expansion. Alongside this I look at the ways Africa was being constructed as a new cotton market – both as a site of cultivation and a site of consumption. In both sections I underscore how the language of commerce, colonialism and cotton shaped particular constructions of space and meanings around the African, and African American body. I conclude with the work of Meta Warrick Fuller to briefly examine how black Americans dismantled these tropes of exclusion, signified by cotton, to project claims for equality.

The project argues that the art works under examination here draw on an economic language to visualize particular ideas and constructions around labor, production and race in three ways. It traces the contours of a market-driven aesthetic in the ways cotton was used to illustrate or materialize connections to a circulating economy of goods. It describes how cotton's movement shaped the construction of imagined geographies around sites of labor and spaces of consumption. And it sketches out the speculative vision that emerged throughout the nineteenth century in the material and metaphorical associations of cotton, commerce and African American identity. In revealing the representational possibilities of cotton in this way, this dissertation looks at understudied objects to consider the nuanced ways that local cultural forms have, historically, intersected with global processes in the Atlantic world. It centralizes the experience of African Americans, within an Anglo-American culture of exchange and its relationship to a global network of trade and transmission. In doing so it seeks to reframe the ways we might approach historical processes of visuality and perception in the long nineteenth century in order to create a more global, or at least transnational, perspective on the art of this period.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Carby, Hazel, Barringer, Tim
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 75/09(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: African American Studies, Art history, Textile Research
Keywords: African American art, Art and commerce, British and American art history, History of cotton, History of slavery, Material culture, Transatlantic exchange
Publication Number: 3580726
ISBN: 978-1-321-05121-6
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