Divya Saraf


Aesthetics of Extraction: Reconfiguring Images of Empire

Advised by Diane Davis and Malkit Shoshan

The so-called Company paintings developed in the Indian Subcontinent over the 18th and 19th centuries under the “patronage” of the East India Company as a result of British attempts to survey, record, and display the practices, people, architecture, flora, and fauna of the region. Even today, these paintings continue to be displayed in major museums and private collections all over the world. Distinctive of these paintings is their “anthropological” aesthetic stylization. That is, these paintings endeavor to portray their subject matter in a “natural” manner in order to persuade viewers that such subject matter is neutral, scientific, and objective. However, both this stylization and the continued curatorial practices and contexts in which these paintings are displayed are highly problematic. The stylization of these paintings was a blatant attempt on the part of British colonizers to efface the authorship and labor of native artists as well as to commodify and fetishize the peoples and practices of the subcontinent. Still more problematic for our own historical moment, though, is the fact that this culture of effacement persists today in the ongoing curation of the paintings. Even now the paintings are typically displayed in museums with no acknowledgement of their original authorship, let alone any historico-cultural contextualization provided by critical postcolonial, decolonial, or subaltern scholarly discourses. By focusing on these “images of empire,” I seek to offer an alternative ground, a “determination otherwise” (from Spivak), of our understanding of these paintings and the specific ways in which museums and archives continue to efface them through a legacy of epistemic violence. Accompanied by a collection of annotated exhibition labels and paintings, I investigate how the creation of empire and the politics of image making were irrevocably entwined.

Color illustration of twenty-one human figures from the Indian subcontinent, male and female, in various modes of dress. Each has a dotted line leading to a red text label reading Unknown.