Social, Economic, and Political Critiques

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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Thanks to advertising, the sugar and chocolate proffered today, and so strongly associated with pleasure and even luxury, have been detached from their past and present systems of production. See advertising, american. The work of Cuban-born María Magdalena Campos-Pons brings critical attention to this gap by highlighting the role of slavery in the Cuban sugar industry. Her 2010 installation Sugar/Bittersweet takes the form of a sugarcane field with rows of erect African spears balanced on African and Chinese stools and encircled by disks of raw sugar like those exported on the triangular trade. Alluding to the enslaved African and indentured Chinese laborers upon whose backs the Cuban sugar industry was built, Campos-Pons opens up a backstory to Antonio de Pereda’s lavish display of Spanish wealth. More recently, the American artist Kara Walker pointed to the historical entwinement of race, power, and exploitation in sugar production with her 2014 site-specific installation in a former Domino Sugar warehouse in Brooklyn. See race. A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby centers on a 90-foot-long African American female sphinx coated in white sugar. Inspired by the “subtlety,” a small, clever, edible sculpture often made of sugar paste that appeared on wealthy medieval banquet tables, Walker created a commanding sphinx with the knotted kerchief of a mammy, exaggerated breasts, and fully exposed genitalia. See sugar sculpture. Both a tribute to sugar workers of African origin and a wider indictment of the historical production systems in which they worked, Walker’s work impels viewers to recognize that enslaved and disempowered female sugar workers also endured both sexual stereotyping and exploitation.