HE AIN’T HEAVY: Labor, Race and Masculinity in the Arts of the Industrialized West

Chairs: Adrienne L. Childs, Independent Scholar and Associate of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University; Andrew Eschlbacher, Virginia Military Institute

The representation of the working man has had particular significance in the visual culture of the industrialized West. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries specifically – as societies engaged varying notions of progress – shifting manufacturing, ideological, and globalizing trends destabilized established notions of labor and masculinity. Additionally, over determined racial discourse further complicated the construction of the “ideal” male worker in an age of slavery, abolitionism, colonialism, and the rise of labor movements. As European and American societies debated the male worker’s ambiguous cultural position and significance, artists and patrons sought appropriate representations of masculine labor to fit their cultural circumstances and political agendas. Negotiating both local and transnational discourses to image the working man, artists intervened at the juncture of complex dialogues about labor, race, masculinity, and politics. This session explores a number of such examples, and probes the visual arts’ role in shaping and reflecting the conception of ennobled work.

gellert primary accumulation 1933
Hugo Gellert, Illustration for Primary Accumulation (1933)


  • Andrew Eschlbacher, Virginia Military Institute, Romantic Ideals, Colonial Realities: Race, Gender, and Class in Jules Dalou’s République

Jules Dalou’s treatment of race within his 1883 relief La République draws on the values of mid-nineteenth-century romantic spirit and the artisan-class revolutionary ethos to mitigate the importance of racial difference within constructions of the universal republic. In his joyous – and quixotic – representation of a mix-raced Republican crowd, Dalou employs a compositional organization and Naturalist treatment of each figure’s bodily form to prioritize themes of social harmony and class cohesion. Denying a hierarchical relationship among the races and insisting on the artisan’s ethos as a fundamental republican value, the relief extols a universal vision of popular manliness. Yet as the sculpture operates in the fin-de-siècle – specifically in light of France’s developing crisis in masculinity, new working-class social structures, and expanding colonial projects – the integrated scene belies an increasingly stratified society. Though intended to celebrate inclusivity in a culture rooted in populist values, the relief exposes a powerful point of tension between the France’s republican rhetoric and its imperialist pursuits. In the early years of the Third Republic, La République reveals the nation’s problematic negotiation of race, gender, and class.

  • James Smalls, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Black Brawn & Affective Cruising: Race, Labor, Class and Homoerotic Desire in James Richmond Barthé’s Stevedore (1937)

The representation of black men in the act of physical labor is relatively rare in not only African-American art, but Western art in general. When it is represented, that body is either pathologized (represented as either in pain or in trauma), or virtuously idealized through classicizing language, heroicizing musculature, or through allegorical or symbolic reference to noble or lofty ideals. James Richmond Barthé’s Stevedore will serve as a point of visual and ideological departure for this paper’s focus on the intersecting productive dynamics of race, eroticism, class, and spirituality as aspects of agency as well as historical, political and aesthetic fulfillment associated with the laboring black male body in Western visual culture.

  • Renée Ater, University of Maryland, College Park, “’By All the Ties of Blood and Identity’: Masculinity and Labor in The African American Civil War Memorial and The Soldiers Memorial

 This paper considers how masculinity and the labor of the African American soldier is shaped in two contemporary American Civil War monuments to the United States Colored Troops: Ed Hamilton’s The African American Civil War Memorial (1998) in Washington, DC, and Ed Dwight’s The Soldiers Memorial (2007) in Jefferson City, Missouri. In the late twentieth century, these monuments seek to rectify a perceived omission of history—African American participation in the American Civil War. Both monuments place African American men front and center in the story of American freedom, recognize their contributions to the nation, and attempt to evoke their presence and laboring bodies within the context of public sculpture. Concerned with both the materiality of the sculptures and their spatial locations, this paper examines the tropes of masculinity and labor, both nineteenth century and late twentieth century, which are evoked in their three-dimensional forms.

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Chairs: Eddie Chambers, University of Texas at Austin; Rose Salseda, University of Texas at Austin

Throughout the twentieth century, riots have been an intermittent yet pronounced aspect of urban history. Primarily due to the violence they embody, riots draw particular types of attention from mainstream media and arguably pass into history, as well as the popular imagination, in various skewed and problematic ways. In contrast, many artists have made fascinating, sophisticated works that reference specific episodes of rioting. Surprisingly, given the power of the artworks and the devastating effects of rioting, scant curatorial and scholarly attention is paid to how artists visualize riots. Therefore, this session seeks to address some of these seldom-considered issues. The co-chairs have secured contributions from art historians and doctoral candidates, who have explored the visualization of riots. In addition, these varied and contrasting contributions will, in part, look to critically examine the dominant tropes of rioting, such as burning buildings, looting, and so on, that have become a familiar aspect of mainstream reportage.

Chicago Riot, 1968
Looters steal from a drugstore near the intersection of West Madison Avenue and Oakley Boulevard during the West Side Riots, Chicago early April 1968. Photographer Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images


  • Caitlin Beach, Columbia University, Reclaiming Corporeality: Meta Warrick Fuller, Mary Turner, and the Memory of Mob Violence

  • Yookyoung Choi, Northern Virginia Community College, Manassas, VA, The Defining Moment for the Korean Americans: Representing the 1992 Los Angeles Riot

  • Julie L. McGee, University of Delaware, Aesthetics of the Abstract and Explosive

  • Nicholas Miller, Northwestern University, Vulnerable to Violence: Jeff Donaldson’s Ala Shango and the Erasure of Diasporic Difference

  • Anne Monahan, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Faith Ringgold’s Die: The Riot and its Reception

Discussant: Kymberly Pinder, Dean of the University of New Mexico College of Fine Arts

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