5/13/22 - 8/21/22

Kailyn Gibson '22

Working in Desire: The Political Economy of Black Feminine Labor is an installation of eight artworks that complement and illuminate Williams College senior Kailyn Gibson’s Art History honors thesis.

Gibson writes:
“In my search for representations of powerful, heroic Black women within the museum’s collection, I was confronted with the repeated sexualization of bodies that were muscled, moving, and laboring. Black female productivity—as illustrated through the figure that I identify as the laboring Black Venus icon—sustained the political economy of plantations emerging in the ‘New World’ during the eighteenth century. Through the increasing industrialization of the colonial project and the mass circulation of her image, the sexualization of the icon becomes heightened. My investigation into the mutability of this symbol prompted questions about what it means for one’s work to be perceived as desirable and, further, what it means when your desirability is rooted in your potential capacity for output. 

Over time the image of the laboring Black Venus icon has continued to proliferate and circulate in print media. We can see here how artists have grappled with her likeness to explore modern notions of intimacy, kinship, and Black feminine desirability and how they act as forms of labor. By imagining these women as more than casualties, we as viewers can, in the words of Saidiya Hartman, ‘labor to paint as full a picture of the lives of the captives as possible.’”

This exhibition was organized by Kailyn Gibson ’22 as a compendium of her Art History thesis, “Working in Silence: Forbidden Desire and Desirable Work in Blake and Stothard,” with the support of Elizabeth Gallerani, Curator of Mellon Academic Programs, and Destinee Filmore, Mellon Curatorial Fellow and MA ’24.

Browse the artwork: