For nearly five centuries, a small European island exerted a profound influence on millions of people, imparting a cultural legacy that continues today. A decorative map created in the 1850s illustrates the British Empire’s vast possessions, not only of land but of the colonial subjects who lived within its borders.
Now a Princeton-led project is using works of art such as this map as a portal for the exploration of British colonialism’s impact on our modern perceptions of racial differences, disease and health. The project, Art Hx: Visual and Medical Legacies of British Colonialism (Hx is medical shorthand for history) brings together scholars and artists to examine the intersection of colonialism, medicine, and works of historical and contemporary art.
“There are missing links between art history, the histories of medicine, and the histories of colonialism,” said Anna Arabindan-Kesson, associate professor of art and archaeology and African American studies, and Art Hx’s leader. “We wanted to create a project that would bring these concepts together,” she said.
Through the project, scholars explore modern attitudes that are rooted in colonial notions of superiority over non-British people. These attitudes encompass themes such as stereotypes about Black women’s healthcare, distrust of Indigenous medical knowledge, and false information about genetics and racial superiority.
The researchers have posted works of art and essays, including work by Art Hx graduate students, scholars and collaborators, on the public website artandcolonialmedicine.com. The project features art from colonial times as well as more contemporary works.
The era of British colonization spanned the 1500s to the second half of the 20th century, and led to the forced migration of millions of people, including via the trans-Atlantic slave trade. To rationalize the exploitation of peoples and justify punishment and neglect, colonizers invented medicalized theories of racial differences that continue to influence modern physicians.
Nineteenth-century physician James Marion Sims, sometimes referred to as “the father of gynecology,” is one historical figure being studied. By examining drawings that appeared in surgical publications during the 1870s, Art Hx interpretive fellow Edna Bonhomme, a historian of science who earned her Ph.D. at Princeton in 2017, explored Sims’ complicated legacy.
Sims developed surgical tools and procedures through operations on poor Irish and enslaved Black women. Although Sims’ discoveries benefited the medical profession, his surgeries on enslaved persons who lacked the legal right to consent to treatment raise significant ethical questions about racialized medical treatment and the right to make reproductive healthcare decisions, two issues very much in the news today.
Empire’s medical legacy
Jessica Womack, a graduate student in Princeton’s Department of Art and Archaeology, began working with Arabindan-Kesson on Art Hx in 2020 as the project manager. During the early months of the pandemic, she watched as the COVID-19 cases rose, particularly within the Black community.
“Black people were dying of COVID,” Womack said. “It was terrifying, overwhelming and suffocating to see that. So when Professor Anna Arabindan-Kesson brought me onto the project, I’d already been thinking about issues of racial disparities, healthcare access and healthcare outcomes.”
Womack was struck by the parallels between racial disparities in modern medical care. “The disparate effects of COVID-19 on Black, Brown and Indigenous communities point to the structural racism embedded in systems of healthcare,” Womack said.
The impact of COVID-19 on Black communities is not the only example of modern racial disparities in healthcare outcomes, Womack said. Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than White women, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Womack said that art helps illuminate medical care in the past, and can reveal much about the present.
“Art-historical approaches can help us understand the visual aspects of communication, which is so important in the circulation of medical knowledge,” Womack said.
One example of how colonial art circulated medical knowledge was through illustrations of tropical plants. Such plants were of interest to the European scientific community due to their potential medical uses, even as many colonial physicians looked down on Indigenous medical practices. Anna Reid, a historian of art and an Art Hx interpretive fellow, describes artworks created by German-born naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, who documented plants and insects during a visit to Suriname in 1701.
Suriname was home to coffee and sugar plantations worked by enslaved Africans and ruled alternately by the British and Dutch. In notes accompanying her illustration of a plant known locally as the “peacock flower,” Merian reported that enslaved Black women used the seeds to abort their pregnancies, employing their botanical knowledge to assert control over their bodies.
Arabindan-Kesson’s own experience in the medical profession inspired her interest in the relationship of art and history. She was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Australia and New Zealand, where she became a nurse after high school. Like millions of people around the globe, she has lived most of her life in the former British Empire.
“Working and traveling in these countries as a nurse highlighted for me how constructions of race and racism play out in the ways in which communities are marginalized and subjected to various kinds of discriminatory social, political and legal structures,” Arabindan-Kesson said.
She credits her interest in colonial influences on medical care to the figures in her life who educated her on her nursing journey.
“As a nurse I was trained by Maori and Pacific Islander women in New Zealand,” she said. “They taught me to see how colonial histories contain perceptions of difference that play out in the way that people still treat each other.”
Ultimately, these perceptions of difference inspired her to leave nursing and return to the university environment to study art history. In 2014, she received her Ph.D. in the history of art and African American studies from Yale University. “I think what’s fundamental to art history is figuring out the ways in which people see,” she said, “and how vision is shaped by all of these other structures, histories and frameworks.”
Arabindan-Kesson joined the Princeton faculty in 2015 and in 2020 created the Art Hx project in part due to the difficulties in bringing together different types of historical objects. Visual art is housed in museums, while historical documents are stored in libraries or archives. The website, which serves to connect many of these items, was launched in 2021.
“Often, because of the way that objects are categorized, or filed or collected, it’s hard to find connections between objects,” Arabindan-Kesson said. “The [Art Hx] website is a way to start aggregating different objects together to allow people to see how these objects tell interconnected stories.”
Bringing stories to life
Sarah Khurshid Khan was the project’s inaugural artist-in-residence from 2021-22. With a background in public health and nutrition and a Ph.D. in plant sciences and traditional ecological knowledge, Khan creates artworks that explore food, culture, migration and healing.
Khan said that Art Hx presents objects in ways that provide a different angle of storytelling. For example, artists highlighted through the project can tell the story of sugar cane from a culinary viewpoint, or from a healthcare viewpoint, or by showing the crop’s impact on the enslaved people who planted and harvested it on vast Caribbean plantations.
“They are the same stories but we’re looking at them from different angles that suddenly reveal all of this other information that we haven’t paid attention to,” Khan said. “This is information that brings to life the lives of those who actually did the labor.”
Art Hx is supported with a two-year Collaborative Humanities grant from the Princeton University Humanities Council, which provides the primary support for the project. The project also receives support through the Dean for Research Innovation Fund, the Department of Art and Archaeology, and the Center for Health and Wellbeing, and is affiliated with the Center for Digital Humanities.
Both Arabindan-Kesson and Womack agree that Art Hx is a resource not only for scholars but also for the public. “We’re exploring working with community partners and activists to offer education and policy toolkits for K-12 educators, healthcare professionals and university educators,” Arabindan-Kesson said.
“We hope that what we are creating is an accessible resource,” Womack said, “not only for academics but something that impacts society.”