"A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" sugar sculpture by Kara Walker
at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, New York (detail from larger photo)
When we describe and think of sugar, it is a white crystal sweet, ubiquitous in our daily diets. "Refined" is a word we associate with behavior and social class, and we forget that white sugar starts out a dark brown, with a molasses as a byproduct of a process called "refining" of sugarcane
, "the world's largest crop by production quantity." It is hard to imagine a world, not so very long ago, when only elites could afford refined sugar, or eat the subtleties crafted for their dining pleasure. Nor when we buy confections or liberally dump spoonfuls of sugar into our coffee or tea do we think of slavery, death and blood.
It is this history, so intimately entwined with the peculiar institution that was slavery and the slave trade, that artist Kara Walker has evoked in her towering and disturbing art exhibit in the old Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, New York.
In a review of the installation, which people have been lining up to see, Roberta Smith in the New York Times writes:
A looming 35 feet tall, Sugar Baby is ensconced toward the back of an enormous warehouse, built in the late 19th century, that Domino once used for storing raw sugar cane as it arrived by boat from the Caribbean for refinement and packaging. Once a luxury — subtleties were sugar sculptures made for the rich as edible table-decorations — sugar became more widely available due in large part to slave labor. No wonder its journey north may bring to mind the Middle Passage endured by Africans forced across the Atlantic.
Sugar Baby fills the space between two rows of steel columns. Evoking an Egyptian temple, the columns also cage her: the scene of King Kong arriving in New York in the hold of a ship comes to mind. And yet, this creature is a power image, a colossal goddess of the future awaiting veneration. With blank eyes, she might also be a blind diviner who knows that the American future is much less white, racially, than its past.
Adding to her scale, the blocks of polystyrene from which she was built show through the sugar coating like seams of quarried stone. The long approach to her is dotted by 13 molasses-colored boys — underage blackamoors — made of cast resin or cast sugar, who introduced further dichotomies of light and dark, raw and cooked. Carrying either big baskets or bunches of bananas, they are enlarged from small cheap ceramic figurines still made in China. They could be pilgrims bringing offerings or workers returning from the cane fields.
Sugars; clockwise from top-left: White refined,
unrefined, brown, unprocessed cane
I've previously written about the boycott of Caribbean sugar
, led by abolitionist women in England who knew that the sweet white sugar in their tea and baked goods was reddened and tainted with the blood of enslaved Africans.
Walker's exhibit led me to explore today the deadly history of sugar, plantation slavery and its role in building the wealth and power of the U.S.
Follow me below the fold for more on the exhibition, and to discuss the bitter, unsweetened legacy of sugarcane, molasses, rum and enslavement.
I'd like to thank Kossak Eddie C, for his photo up top (see more in his photostream) and he has also shared his experience attending the exhibit:
On viewing the art
For as long as I’ve lived in New York City the Domino Sugar Factory has dominated the Brooklyn waterfront with an enormous sign offering a sweet greeting to all of the Lower East Side. With the familiar landmark soon to be demolished in order to make way for luxury condominiums, getting a chance to go inside, seeing and feeling all of that history seemed important to me. Being inside that sugar refinery was of such a high priority that I never even bothered reading what they were letting the public in to see. Outside of the title “a Subtlety” and that the art was actually made out of sugar, I had almost no idea what I was in for. Sugar art, what could be sweeter than that?
Even though the sweet tooth of the world has a long despicable history where workers living in extreme poverty represent the upside of the story, I’ve often viewed the brighter side of the neon East River landmark. Far less thinking on my part about where those sugar ships coming up the East River came from and more thinking about the generations of Brooklyn workers who may have drawn small sugar paychecks but lived the meager side of the American dream in the Williamsburg tenements, raised children who got good educations and died happy surrounded by grandchildren who were better off that they ever were.
I did know that the building has overhead skylights and being obsessed with photography I wanted to be one of the first inside on the day the sun is highest in the sky. The Kent Street queue just prior to the noon opening on the summer solstice ran on for the length of the property where Frederick C. Havemeyer Jr. expanded a family fortune that was all about turning sugar from brown to white. There was some mention of a “sugar sphinx” but most of the people I talked with were also less interested in seeing the art and anxious to see the piles of sugar on the rafters overhead and witness the smell of one hundred and fifty year old sugar.
I was not unaware of the long history the sugar industry had with exploitation of workers, the millions who were uprooted from their homes and shipped across the world, first as slaves and latter as grossly underpaid indentured workers. Not until the line of visitors turned the corner and saw the building for the first time did I get a hint of what was inside. The greeting on the side of the building made it obvious that this visit was not just about an architecture archeology tour of Brooklyn’s sweetest anymore.
AT THE BEHEST OF CREATIVE TIMES KARA E WALKER HAS CONFECTED
MARVELOUS SUGAR BABY
AN HOMAGE TO THE UNPAID AND OVERWORKED ARTISANS WHO HAVE REFINED OUR SWEET TASTE FROM THE CANE FIELDS TO THE KITCHENS OF THE NEW WORLD ON THE OCCASION OF THE DEMOLITION OF THE DOMINIO SUGAR REFINING PLANT
The name of the artist rang a “powerful statement art” bell for me. For anyone who took the effort of reading the introduction, the words of the greeting changed the experience of walking through that door. With Van Morrison’s “Domino” playing over and over in my head since getting on line, the solemn silence of the people entering that doorway changed that tune. That odor in the doorway, more molasses than sugar, based on those words of introduction became the smell of human suffering.
The doorway visual was the huge sugar sphinx as far from the door and framed by girders but the relation to that sculpture was put off by the smaller “sugar babies” close to the entrance. Children made of sugar and molasses burdened with large baskets and heavy bails of sugar cane. Some of these children with obvious signs of malnutrition, far too thin with the distended abdomen of starvation is what engaged visitors to “a Subtlety.” Many of these sculptures are melting in the heat of the refinery, screaming “disposable child labor.” If that visual is too subtle, some are prone and bleeding molasses while others have been wrapped in plastic and disposed of in cans.
I spent a long time walking around these sculptures, observing how the visitors related to the children and the labor history of the world. I wondered what the difference was between Victorian parents buying a sugarloaf for their own children without any thought of where it came from and these present day visitors with their expensive clothing and iPhone cameras with little thought of where those items come from.
Well before I made my way down to the large sugar sphinx I made the association that just like the sugar industry, the Great Sphinx of Giza had been built on the backs of slaves. When I finally wound my way through the pain and suffering of the children and looked up at the features of this giant mother watching over the exploited children I saw the last thing I expected to see, I saw a proud mother. Now with the music in my head transformed to U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” I was overcome by the thought that for hundreds of years motherhood was the only means of survival on those many Caribbean islands. I wondered if it was the intention of Kara Walker that the final message of this art tour, perhaps even the final message of the Domino Sugar Refinery would be “We endured.”
has a video that takes you behind the scenes of the Walker installation.
This episode provides an in-depth look at the creation of Kara Walker's monumental public project, "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" (2014), at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, NY. Seated in her Manhattan studio, Walker explains how the molasses-covered space, along with her extensive research into the history of sugar, inspired her to create a colossal sugar-coated sphinx, as well as a series of life-sized, sugar and resin boy figurines. A team of artists and fabricators are shown constructing and coating the sphinx, which, as Walker says, gains its power by "upsetting expectations, one after the other." Commissioned by Creative Time, "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" is the first large-scale public project by Walker who is best known for her cut paper silhouette installations, drawings, and watercolors. "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" is on view until July 6, 2014. Thereafter, the factory will be demolished to make way for condominiums.
Kara Walker explores the raw intersection of race, gender, and sexuality in her work, crafting vivid psychological narratives from a contemporary perspective on historical conditions. Over the past two decades, Walker has unleashed the traditionally Victorian medium of the silhouette onto the walls of the gallery, creating immersive installations that envelop the viewer. Walker's multi-media work—which includes drawing, watercolor, video, and sculpture—often reconsider grotesque caricatures, probing their persistence in popular culture and reclaiming their subjugating power to alternative ends.
One of the interesting articles about the exhibition was Going to see Kara Walker’s ‘Subtlety?’ Read these first.
. Writer Soraya Nadia McDonald suggests novels that will enhance understanding:
Like Walker’s “Subtlety,” these novels were inspired by Caribbean slave trade and the way it affected the women of the West Indies. Though by no means a comprehensive list, here’s a jumping-off point:
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé and Conquistadora by Esmerelda Santiago.
A film I show to students to understand this history is Burn
(Italian title: Queimada), starring Marlon Brando and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.
Anyone with an interest in the triangle trade, the development of a sugar economy, the rise of merchant class in Europe and the U.S. based on the monocrop economy of sugarcane and related byproducts, should have anthropologist Sidney W Mintz' classic work on their bookshelf.
Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History
by Sidney W. Mintz:
Sugar has been around for milennia, but only in the past two centuries has it become a significant foodstuff and major cash crop, and then only in the West. As a preservative, as a medicine, in decoration, as a spice or condiment, and as a sweetener, sugar has grown incredibly, even alarmingly, popular – and its use is still increasing.
In this eye-opening study of how Europeans and Americans transformed sugar from a rare foreign luxury to a commonplace necessity of modem life, and how a slave crop, and the growing demand for it, transformed the history of capitalism and industry, Sidney Mintz asks us to consider the many ways in which sugar has become "meaningful" in modern Western life. For while we might argue that all humans have an innate craving for sweetness, there is something special about what happened to sugar in the West, and it can only be explained by relating it to issues of imperial and class ambitions, power politics, and economic issues.
Mintz discusses the history of the production and consumption of sugar, and shows how closely interwoven are its origins as a tropical slave crop grown in Europe's colonies with its use first as an extravagant luxury for the upper classes, then as a necessary part of the diet of the new industrial proletariat. His analysis of how sugar has penetrated social behavior opens up fascinating perspectives on the history of slavery, imperialism, and industrialization -- as well as on the anthropology of food and of Western societies.
Sugarcane worker and his woman in Puerto Rico
, professor emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, also authored the classic ethnography, Worker in the Cane
, a life history of Don Taso, a Puerto Rican sugarcane worker.
Too often, when there is a discussion of slavery in the U.S., the focus is only on the South and southern slaveholders. Not enough emphasis is placed on the role of sugar and the triangle trade in building the wealth of the Northern merchant class and the families who would become part the northern elites.
A list of the leading slave merchants is almost identical with a list of the region's prominent families: the Fanueils, Royalls, and Cabots of Massachusetts; the Wantons, Browns, and Champlins of Rhode Island; the Whipples of New Hampshire; the Eastons of Connecticut; Willing & Morris of Philadelphia. To this day, it's difficult to find an old North institution of any antiquity that isn't tainted by slavery. Ezra Stiles imported slaves while president of Yale. Six slave merchants served as mayor of Philadelphia. Even a liberal bastion like Brown University has the shameful blot on its escutcheon. It is named for the Brown brothers, Nicholas, John, Joseph, and Moses, manufacturers and traders who shipped salt, lumber, meat -- and slaves. And like many business families of the time, the Browns had indirect connections to slavery via rum distilling. John Brown, who paid half the cost of the college's first library, became the first Rhode Islander prosecuted under the federal Slave Trade Act of 1794 and had to forfeit his slave ship. Historical evidence also indicates that slaves were used at the family's candle factory in Providence, its ironworks in Scituate, and to build Brown's University Hall.
One of the keys in examining the rise of the U.S. is a look at Northern slavery profits
On the eve of the Revolution, the slave trade formed the very basis of the economic life of New England. It wove itself into the entire regional economy of New England. The Massachusetts slave trade gave work to coopers, tanners, sailmakers, and ropemakers. Countless agents, insurers, lawyers, clerks, and scriveners handled the paperwork for slave merchants. Upper New England loggers, Grand Banks fishermen, and livestock farmers provided the raw materials shipped to the West Indies on that leg of the slave trade. Colonial newspapers drew much of their income from advertisements of slaves for sale or hire. New England-made rum, trinkets, and bar iron were exchanged for slaves.
When the British in 1763 proposed a tax on sugar and molasses, Massachusetts merchants pointed out that these were staples of the slave trade, and the loss of that would throw 5,000 seamen out of work in the colony and idle almost 700 ships. The connection between molasses and the slave trade was rum. Millions of gallons of cheap rum, manufactured in New England, went to Africa and bought black people. Tiny Rhode Island had more than 30 distilleries, 22 of them in Newport. In Massachusetts, 63 distilleries produced 2.7 million gallons of rum in 1774. Some was for local use: rum was ubiquitous in lumber camps and on fishing ships. But primarily rum was linked with the Negro trade, and immense quantities of the raw liquor were sent to Africa and exchanged for slaves. So important was rum on the Guinea Coast that by 1723 it had surpassed French and Holland brandy, English gin, trinkets and dry goods as a medium of barter. Slaves costing the equivalent of 4 or 5 in rum or bar iron in West Africa were sold in the West Indies in 1746 for30 to80. New England thrift made the rum cheaply -- production cost was as low as 5 pence a gallon -- and the same spirit of Yankee thrift discovered that the slave ships were most economical with only 3 feet 3 inches of vertical space to a deck and 13 inches of surface area per slave, the human cargo laid in carefully like spoons in a silverware case.
A film that examines one Northern family whose wealth was built on plantation slavery is Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North
In Traces of the Trade, Producer/Director Katrina Browne tells the story of her forefathers, the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Given the myth that the South is solely responsible for slavery, viewers will be surprised to learn that Browne’s ancestors were Northerners. The film follows Browne and nine fellow family members on a remarkable journey which brings them face-to-face with the history and legacy of New England’s hidden enterprise.
From 1769 to 1820, DeWolf fathers, sons and grandsons trafficked in human beings. They sailed their ships from Bristol, Rhode Island to West Africa with rum to trade for African men, women and children. Captives were taken to plantations that the DeWolfs owned in Cuba or were sold at auction in such ports as Havana and Charleston. Sugar and molasses were then brought from Cuba to the family-owned rum distilleries in Bristol. Over the generations, the family transported more than ten thousand enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage. They amassed an enormous fortune. By the end of his life, James DeWolf had been a U.S. Senator and was reportedly the second richest man in the United States.
The enslavement of Africans was business for more than just the DeWolf family. It was a cornerstone of Northern commercial life. The Triangle Trade drove the economy of many port cities (Rhode Island had the largest share in the trade of any state), and slavery itself existed in the North for over 200 years. Northern textile mills used slave-picked cotton from the South to fuel the Industrial Revolution, while banks and insurance companies played a key role throughout the period. While the DeWolfs were one of only a few “slaving” dynasties, the network of commercial activities that they were tied to involved an enormous portion of the Northern population. Many citizens, for example, would buy shares in slave ships in order to make a profit.
Another book that examines the history and profits of Northern slave trading is The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island
by Mac Griswold.
Mac Griswold’s The Manor is the biography of a uniquely American place that has endured through wars great and small, through fortunes won and lost, through histories bright and sinister—and of the family that has lived there since its founding as a New England slave plantation three and a half centuries ago. In 1984, the landscape historian Mac Griswold was rowing along a Long Island creek when she came upon a stately yellow house and a garden guarded by looming boxwoods. She instantly knew that boxwoods that large—twelve feet tall, fifteen feet wide—had to be hundreds of years old. So, as it happened, was the house: Sylvester Manor had been held in the same family for eleven generations.
Formerly encompassing all of Shelter Island, a pearl of 8,000 acres caught between the North and South Forks of Long Island, the manor had dwindled to 243 acres. Still, its hidden vault proved to be full of revelations and treasures, including the 1666 charter for the land, and correspondence from Thomas Jefferson. Most notable was the short and steep flight of steps the family had called the “slave staircase,” which would provide clues to the extensive but little-known story of Northern slavery. Alongside a team of archaeologists, Griswold began a dig that would uncover a landscape bursting with stories.
Based on years of archival and field research, as well as voyages to Africa, the West Indies, and Europe, The Manor is at once an investigation into forgotten lives and a sweeping drama that captures our history in all its richness and suffering. It is a monumental achievement.
about The Manor
and northern slavery by Griswold.)
The New York Times covered the lecture series about the book in Life on the Plantation: Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island Returns to Its Roots:
Ms. Griswold originally stumbled across the manor in 1984, rowing across the creek. She climbed out of the boat and snooped around, finding no one at home, but guessing that the massive boxwoods had to be hundreds of years old. Her new book, “The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island,” to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in July, tells of her first meeting with Alice and Andrew Fiske several months later, and how they showed her through the house, with its faded portraits of ancestors, layers of peeling paint and French wallpaper, and hundreds of books representing 300 years of American agricultural history.
Mr. Fiske regaled her with stories of how Nathaniel Sylvester and his brother, who had two plantations in Barbados and more than 200 slaves, bought the 8,000-acre Shelter Island with their English partners for 1,600 pounds of raw sugar, from a land speculator. And how Nathaniel’s 16-year-old bride, Grizzell, brought boxwood cuttings with her from England, which she used to start the gardens. Ms. Griswold remembers how she followed Mr. Fiske into the vault and the door fell shut, leaving them in total darkness. “It was very dark and moldy smelling,” she said. “I felt as if I were time-traveling. Then, when he turned on the light, I saw I was in a room 12 feet long and 8 feet wide, absolutely stuffed with papers and objects of every kind. He was a short man and he reached up and took this heavy red-leather-covered book off the top of a file cabinet, carried it into the dining room and opened it up. There was the 1666 charter for the manor of Shelter Island, and my hair just stood up.”
She was similarly unsettled when the gentle Mr. Fiske took her up to the attic. As she writes in her book, “Walking toward the door, Andy says, ‘This leads to the slave staircase,’ as if this were the most natural thing in the world to have a slave staircase in your early Georgian house on Long Island.”
Lest you think sugarcane and plantation abuses are solely problems from the past, there are still a host of problems for those workers who harvest cane for our sugar bowls:
See, for example, Filipino Sugarcane Workers Are Nearly the Walking Dead or Police have been deployed to guard sugar cane fields belonging to Ubombo Sugar Limited or Dominican Republic: Modern Day Sugarcane Slavery. The situation in the Dominican Republic was documented in the film, The Price of Sugar.
On the Caribbean island of the Dominican Republic, tourists flock to pristine beaches, with little knowledge that a few miles away thousands of dispossessed Haitians are under armed guard on plantations harvesting sugarcane, most of which ends up in US kitchens. Cutting cane by machete, they work 14 hour days, 7 days a week, frequently without access to decent housing, electricity, clean water, education, healthcare or adequate nutrition. The Price of Sugar follows a charismatic Spanish priest, Father Christopher Hartley, as he organizes some of this hemisphere's poorest people, challenging the powerful interests profiting from their work. This film raises key questions about where the products we consume originate, at what human cost they are produced and ultimately, where our responsibility lies.
(Full film is available here
Though the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn will soon be only a memory, the relentless demand for sugar in global markets and sugar's role in the global exploitation of workers will continue.