Medicalized Enslavement, Disability, and Southeast Asian Art
In the December Issue of the American Historical Review
The articles that make up the December 2023 issue of the American Historical Review explore histories of medicine, gender, disability, race, and agency from the early modern period to the 20th century. The AHR History Lab examines how contemporary artists in Southeast Asia engage with decolonial history in their work, along with two #AHRSyllabus modules, one on teaching historical video games and another on making historical podcasts in the classroom.
The December History Lab brings a new installment of Art as Historical Method. In a collaboration with the National Gallery Singapore, three regional curators explore the historically focused work of several Southeast Asian contemporary artists. The cover image depicts a selection of blue-and-white ceramic plates created by artist Yee I-Lann. The plates appear to point back to the 17th-century Asian porcelain trade but in fact are decorated with scenes of everyday contemporary urban life in Malaysia and Indonesia, underscoring the interconnections between colonial power and commerce in the present moment. Yee I-Lann. Tabled. 2013. Ceramic rimmed flat plates with digital decal prints and backstamp, 195 × 312 cm (full dimensions). Collection of Singapore Art Museum. Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.
In “As [Healthy] Women Should,” Debra Blumenthal (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) examines the exploitation of enslaved women’s bodies as clinical subjects in 15th-century Iberia. Menstrual disorders, she argues, figured prominently among the legal cases filed by disgruntled buyers across the late medieval Mediterranean world. Reflective of their heightened interest in female physiology during this period, university-trained male physicians were the expert witnesses most frequently called on to resolve disputes concerning what an enslaved woman’s lack of menses meant. Through a close analysis of “expert” testimony in seven lawsuits filed before the court of the Justicia Civil in Valencia in the 1440s, the slave market emerges in Blumenthal’s telling as instrumental to the expansion of late medieval gynecological knowledge.
Heather Vrana (Univ. of Florida) argues in “Endemic Goiter and El Salvador’s Battle against Cretinismo” that goiter research and its representation in popular culture were part of a broader health discourse that focused on poor and rural women and girls in state attempts to advance reproductive and productive potential in El Salvador. Vrana discusses how goiter research positioned El Salvador as a site of knowledge production for global health. Drawing on insights from critical disability studies, she proposes that goiter is best understood as a disability through which certain groups of people were constructed as “problem” populations. While local understandings of goiter shifted over time, Vrana argues, the lingering association of goiter with inheritable disability has proved enduring.
Beeta Baghoolizadeh’s (Princeton Univ.) “Seeing Black America in Iran” examines how many Iranians closely followed Black American protests during the civil rights and Black Power movements in the 1960s United States and later. Iranian intellectuals, revolutionaries, and those in media, she argues, used US-centric histories of enslavement, racism, and Black Americans to erase Iranian histories of enslavement and racism and tacitly displace the existence of Black Iranians across the national landscape. After the 1979 revolution, Baghoolizadeh contends, non-Black Iranians and the Iranian government continued to focus on US-based racism through an official narrative that repeatedly defined racism as a singular American problem, ultimately cementing the erasures around histories of enslavement and Black Iranians that began with abolition in 1929.
In “Breaking the Bonds of Segregation: Civil Rights Politics and the History of Modern Finance,” Destin Jenkins (Stanford Univ.) builds on arguments made by 1960s civil rights leaders that segregation was a national problem because it was financed through a network of bankers across the country who specialized in the business of debt. By weaving the internal memos, protest ephemera, and legal strategies of civil rights activists together with the credit assessments, scheduled bond offerings, and perspectives of financiers, Jenkins reconstructs attempts to politicize bond market transactions and efforts to place the economic certainty of segregation in doubt. He offers a new perspective on the so-called classic phase of the civil rights movement and raises larger questions about the dilemmas of investment-focused campaigns and how finance capital compounds the difficulties of organizing against authoritarian regimes.
Three Southeast Asia–based curators offer sustained readings of recent history-focused work by three artists from the region.
Paul Bjerk’s (Texas Tech Univ.) “Political Biography and the Agency of Audience” focuses on a recent massive co-authored biographical study of the Tanzanian postcolonial leader Julius Nyerere to examine how authors and audiences are entangled in discursive practice. Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s concept of iterability and the constant mutation of form, Bjerk reflects on the intellectual traditions of Tanzania’s “Dar es Salaam School,” of which the Nyerere biographers were a part, to offer a theoretical discussion of how an audience shapes the composition of a text and to address ongoing debates about the way scholarly authority in African studies tends to reside outside of Africa.
The History Lab opens with another installment of the Art as Historical Method series titled “Southeast Asian History and Contemporary Art,” a collaboration with the National Gallery Singapore. Three Southeast Asia–based curators—Goh Sze Ying, Dương Mạnh Hùng, and Issa Yi Xian Sng—offer sustained readings of recent history-focused work by three artists from the region. The works include Yee I-Lann’s Tabled (2003), which uses a set of ceramic plates to explore the exercise of colonial and postcolonial power; Dinh Q. Lê’s installation Crossing the Farther Shore (2014), which draws on vernacular photographs of southern families who left Vietnam after 1975 to recover memories of everyday social histories during the Vietnam War era; and Ho Tzu Nyen’s magical realist video Utama—Every Name in History Is I (2003–15), which offers an alternative history of Singapore whose aim is to displace the prevailing European founding story. An introduction by Patrick Flores, deputy director of the National Gallery Singapore, reflects on the place of history in contemporary Southeast Asian art. Flores also hosted a conversation with the curator contributors held in Singapore earlier in the year that is available in the online version of the journal. Rounding out this intervention is an interview I conducted with Vietnamese American artist Tiffany Chung about For the Living, her massive installation on the National Mall this past August and September. It is a project rooted in Chung’s sustained archival research and oral history work that quite literally traced in the landscape of the mall global routes of exile and displacement of the Southeast Asian diaspora after the Vietnam War.
Two #AHRSyllabus modules, along with a History Unclassified essay, close out the Lab. Tore Olsson (Univ. of Tennessee) reflects on his teaching with Red Dead Redemption II and offers a lesson plan for teaching the history of women’s suffrage using the game. Saniya Lee Ghanoui (Univ. of Texas at El Paso), senior producer of the podcast Sexing History who collaborated with the AHR on an episode about the history of a Texas abortion clinic featured in the June issue, provides a lesson plan for making historical podcasts. In “Eating on the Ground” for History Unclassified, Sarah Abrevaya Stein (Univ. of California, Los Angeles) explores vernacular picnic photographs that fill photo albums in the late Ottoman period to consider how Sephardic Jews relaxed and ate in nature at a time when the ground was literally shifting around them. The AHR’s podcast, History in Focus, offers a deeper dive into the December issue, including a reading by Stein of her essay.
Editor's Note: This article's title has been updated to better reflect its content.
Mark Philip Bradley is editor of the American Historical Review and the Bernadotte E. Schmitt Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Chicago.
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