The Plantation Complex

Emilia Terracciano, Art History and Cultural Practices, University of Manchester,
Anna Arabindan-Kesson, Art and Archaeology/African American Studies, Princeton University,

We propose three main research themes: how does the plantation figure in the visual, performative and aural work of artists? How do artists examine the slippery redefinitions and legacies of slavery? How to visually decolonise the monocultures of the present and reflect upon the iterative futures of the plantation?

The plantation system did not end with the abolition of slavery in the New World. This panel seeks to foster novel debates centred on visual art production; it focuses on the long afterlife of the plantation system following the abolition of slavery across the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. This also means redrawing attention to understudied phenomena including the global movement of indentured labour and plant species from the Asian continent.

Where the existing literature focuses on the antebellum US South and the enslaved Caribbean, we wish to explore the multiple instantiations of a system that is economic, scientific, environmental, cultural and social. We attend to the visual articulations of artists to suggest that the afterlife of the plantation is as much about trauma and collective memory as it is about the enduring and spectral patterns of labour exploitation and ecological devastation.

Speakers and Abstracts

Donald Locke: Plantation Studies

Giulia Smith (University of Oxford)

Between 1972 and 1976, Donald Locke, then based in London, produced a suite of small sculptures entitled Plantation Studies. These abstract objects, I will show, encapsulate broader debates about the material, ecological and psychological legacy of the plantation system in the context of the decolonisation of the Anglophone Caribbean. Formerly British Guiana, Locke’s native country became independent Guyana in 1966. Crucially, the production of sugarcane played a prominent role in the Guyanese economy long after the abolition of slavery, and arguably still does. Locke’s Plantation Studies attest to the difficulty of reconciling with this landscape in the aftermath of independence, a time marked by outmigration and agricultural alienation across the Caribbean. Drawing on the writings of poets and intellectuals including Kamau Brathwaite and Sylvia Wynter, I will place Plantation Studies within a broader philosophical nexus geared towards rearticulating the plantation as a site of biotic resistance as well as a ubiquitous prototype for the carceral and ecocide logic of racial capitalism.

Crucially, Locke produced these works in London, extending the logic of the plantation beyond its spatio-temporal bounds. As the sculptures were inspired by the cages used to trap fruit-eating pests on the plantations of the artist’s childhood, I will also consider the dehumanisation of plantation labourers (both slave and indentured) as integral to processes of capitalist accumulation, whose anti-black structures continue to organise the global marketplace. In making this argument, I will draw on the fields of Black Geography and Black Geology, specifically on the work of Kathryn Yusoff and Katherine McKittrick on ‘plantation futures’.

Simryn Gill’s Becoming Palm (2018)

Emilia Terracciano (University of Manchester)

Since 1993, artist Simryn Gill has been documenting the plants, landscapes, and outmoded structures in and around Malaysian plantations, experimenting with different media from tracings of various forms, books, foldable guides, and publications.This paper considers Gill’s book Becoming Palm (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), co-authored with anthropologist Michael Taussig, which focuses on the histories of the plantation in Malaysia. Becoming Palm juxtaposes text with archival photographs, botanical illustrations, and manuals, evoking the format of the pocket-size guide, one that also revived the idea of the pastoral, pre-industrial landscape as key to a nation’s identity and character. Addressing the relations of language to experience, of the body to scale, and of narratives to plants, this paper considers Gill’s engagement with the ecologies of writing, picturing, and tracing on the printed page. 

The ecology of Gill’s contribution reflects on the ongoing and mundane violence that the plantation system has long wrought on peoples and environments: iterative constructions of legality and institutional bondage, as well as the accelerated contingencies of cause and effect. Making sense of the plantation as industrial landscape, once of rubber, today of palm oil, this paper analyses Gill’s essay by concentrating on the intimacies – between humans, plants, animals, and their surroundings – that emerge in this technologically altered world, and which are bound up in the cycle of consumer capitalism. Writing, indexing, and picturing the plantation system might also mean tracing how the violence and displacement generated by this machine involves different scales of reference. 

Volumetric Space and Donald Locke: Artistic attempts to understand a context

Tiffany C Boyle (The Glasgow School of Art)

Guyanese-born artist Donald Locke graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1964, during which a shift in practice occurred from studio ceramics to installation work – gallery-based and outdoors – moving later towards painting and mixed-media (his ‘Southern Mansions’ series noting the shared architectural styles of the American South and Guyana, connected through the plantocracy). In a pivotal period from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, contrasting themes were explored: the open expanse of the desert, versus cage-like formations and regimented lines, the journeys of peoples and objects versus confinement, all explored in monotone as the artist came to terms with having left post-independence Guyana.

Awarded a 1979 Guggenheim Fellowship to Arizona, Locke furthered his experiments, tracing pathways in the Arizonan desert-scape with black, square canvases. In a nod to the work of Denis Williams, his ‘Arizona Squares’ series culminated in his ‘room environments’ – volumetric space carved out sculpturally with his own body used in their staging, linking historic narratives with his own body and life in the present. Later in life, the artist began drafts of an ultimately uncompleted Guyanese art history, which discussed the after-effects of the plantation system on the physical demarcation of land in Guyana into grid-like formations – referencing the work of other Guyanese artists and attempting to contextualise his own preoccupations. Focusing on Locke’s ‘Arizona Squares’ series and Guyanese art-historical study, this paper builds upon archival research undertaken through a 2019–20 Hauser & Wirth Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship, in collaboration with the artists’ estate and Stuart A. Rose Library.

Visuality and the Plantationocene: The panoramas of Regina Agu

Allison K. Young (Louisiana State University School of Art)

In installations comprising landscape photography, text and drawing, artist Regina Agu examines the historical and ecological connections between the US South and West Africa. Born in Houston to a Nigerian father and a Louisianan mother, Agu spent her childhood in Texas before relocating to West Africa with her family, where she lived and travelled until her early twenties. The artist’s work is informed by maritime routes of migration that define not only her own biography but also centuries of colonialism, trade and industrial expansion, from the Middle Passage to the rise of petrochemical economies on opposite Atlantic coasts. Often deploying panorama photography – a genre affiliated with colonial fantasy and the industrial revolution – she positions the effects of global warming in relation to parallel flows of empire, natural resources and human cargo. Through the lens of recent theorisations of the Plantationocene – a term relating to the environmental and social changes wrought by exploitative agricultural and labour practices of the colonial era – this paper centres on Agu’s site-specific installation Passage (2019) for the New Orleans Museum of Art. Wrapping around the museum’s Neo-Classical Great Hall, the work consists of a multi-layered photographic panorama that documents the changing ecosystem of Louisiana, where river deltas, bayous, lakes and wetland forests have been irreparably damaged by subsidence, salinity and rising sea levels. Passage envisions the region’s shifting landscape through the lens of multiple geographies – as an industrial site, a site for natural resource extraction, and a landscape marked by histories of slavery.





70 Cowcross Street
London EC1M 6EJ

+44(0)20 7490 3211