About this Project

The Working Group on Slavery and Visual Culture is a transdisciplinary project that explores the relationships between visuality and regimes of racialization during slavery and its afterlives. Transhistorical and comparative in character, the project examines the visual imagining of slavery and the slave trade, the production and use of visual images and material objects by enslaved people and slaveholders, and the roles played by the visual logics of slavery in processes of self-fashioning and in the accumulation of (visual/cultural) capital.

Under the rubric Visual Regimes of Enslavement, during academic year 2020-2021 the project will investigate how visual practices fostered during the slaveholding era in the circum-Atlantic world have underwritten or organized contemporary modes of seeing black bodies. The goal is, first, to study both the extent and the specific means by which historical visual regimes of enslavement have been foundational for the contemporary inscription of blackness as hypervisible and invisible, and as a signifier of the criminal, the non-citizen, and the disposable in many post-slavery societies. Second, it will explore and bring to the fore the role played by publicly engaged black visual cultures and technologies in the memorialization and preservation of histories of slavery and in the contestation of their logics of surveillance.

Three main themes, concentrated in successive quarters, organize this research agenda: 1) Fall 2020: On the Visual Afterlives of Slavery is devoted to contemporary practices of seeing blackness, both with regard to policing and to aesthetic responses; 2) Winter 2021: Spectacles for/of Freedom: Black Bodies in the Age of Abolition is dedicated to exploring the ways in which blackness was newly embodied in the nineteenth century through discourses of sentimentalism, biological degeneration, and criminality, and their echoes in contemporary modes of seeing black bodies; and 3) Spring 2021: Slavery, Black Bodies, and Salvation will address the roles of religious practices in the visual figurations of black bodies as entities of sin and potential redemption. 

IMAGE: Titus Kaphar, Behind the Myth of Benevolence, 2014. © Titus Kaphar. Photo: Jeremy Lawson. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian.

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