Objects, Portals, Constellations: Visualizing the Entanglements of Art and Empire

Anna Arabindan-Kesson, Princeton University

Objects ask us to see with them as their histories unfold, and from that unfolding emerges a space within which to imagine futures of relation, care, and value.

In her collaborative digital project Art Hx: Visual Medical Legacies of British Colonialism, Anna Arabindan-Kesson attempted to interrogate the historical production of different ways of seeing as well as the continued significance of those ways of seeing to the history of art. She and her undergraduate and graduate students at Princeton University developed the website around a database of objects compiled from archives and museum collections. They emphasize the relational nature of objects, and are alert to the need to engage what are often violent and traumatizing colonial histories without reinscribing that violence. Two different methodologies informed their approach: Jules Prown’s idea of the object as portal, articulated in his essay “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method” (1982); and novelist Arundhati Roy’s idea of the pandemic as a portal between one world and the next. Through interventions such as network mapping, constellation mapping, and audio-recorded "case notes" that seek to learn from the relational nature of patient care, student authors consider their own orientation relative to the objects, even as they ask viewers to do the same.

Anna Arabindan-Kesson is Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies with a joint appointment in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University. She is a scholar of African American, Caribbean, and British Art, with a research emphasis on histories of race, empire, and transatlantic visual culture in the long nineteenth century.

Image credit: Benjamin Haynes, Lucky Valley Estate in the Parish of Clarendon, Jamaica. The Property of Edward Long Esq Surveyed in October 1816 by B Haynes, 1816, pen and watercolor on paper. The British Library, London.