Re-Shaping the Sugar
February 12 through March 18, 2023
Curated by Yohanna M. Roa
By ERIN L. MCCUTCHEON PHD, March 2023
It is difficult to underestimate how much sugar has shaped the world we live in today. While partaking in morning rituals, stirring sugar into our coffees, we may forget that these tiny, refined grains of sticky sweetness mask the bitterness of our shared global past and present. The lure of commodities like sugar drove white colonizers from Europe to the Americas in the sixteenth-century, simultaneously connecting and fragmenting disparate places and peoples, such as New York and the Caribbean, across centuries. The global sugar industry was central to New York’s economy. By the eighteenth-century, roughly half of the ships in New York’s port were either arriving from or heading to the Caribbean as local merchants made their livelihoods by investing in sugarcane producing areas. New York was the center of the world’s sugar industry by the early twentieth century and its landscape was visibly shaped by this reality. Some of the world’s largest refineries, such as the Domino Sugar building, were erected in the city to store and process sugar as it made its journey from the Caribbean to wealthy homes in New York and around the world. Another example, the five-story Livingston Sugar House, built in 1754 and once one of the largest buildings in New York, is located just a mile and half from WhiteBox’s new Avenue B location.
Alicia Grullón’s performance, Revealing New York: The Disappearance of Others, effectively situated viewers in these site-specific complexities at the heart of WhiteBox’s new exhibition, Re-Shaping the Sugar. Seated at a table in front of the glass window during the opening celebration, Grullón offered food for sale – rice, beans, flour – at prices built to match the inhumanity of the local housing market that continues to disproportionately displace BIPOC communities. Pasting cut out portions of the New York Times real estate section onto her face, Grullón formed a thick mask that covered her mouth, transforming into another silenced “other” – her individuality slowly disappeared from view, her body physically marked by modern capitalism linked to colonial histories. As I witnessed the performance, the fate of the Domino Sugar Refinery came to mind, the building now slated to for a mix of luxury apartments and affordable housing. How has the colonial history of sugar continued to shape the lives of those on either side of this spectrum in New York today?
These convergences of past and present, local and global, rooted in the here and now, are at the heart of the works featured in Re-Shaping the Sugar. Part of WhiteBox’s EXODUS series, which centers work by local émigré artists, curator Yohanna M. Roa has brought together seven artists whose identities and works are linked to aspects of the long histories of sugar in the Afro-Caribbean. While their works all reveal the persistence of colonial violences across space and time, Roa’s curatorial hand also allows viewers root themselves in moments of resistance, resilience, and visibility. In doing so, the show performs the difficult task of both challenging singular and overly generalized narratives of the Caribbean and its diaspora, while also creating space for connections across disconnected, fragmented, and less visible histories.
Viewers might be struck by the lack of sugar, as physical material, in the works in the exhibition. This refusal of my initial expectations (and perhaps unconscious desires?) for sugar forced me to confront my positioning as a white, US-American, woman viewer in relation to the works and the conceptual pathways they open. Sugar is not a commodity here, but instead functions as a kind of ghost, a unifying history whose shadow is traced on and within the works, manifested as both a memory and present condition. Oceanic connections between the brutal histories of the sugar trade as linked to slavery, and its echoes in contemporary tourism are on display in Juana Valdes’ Tranquil Waterways, a billowing sail constructed from handkerchiefs that combine images of Spanish Galleons and passages from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that ushers viewers into the space. Its placement alongside Joiri Minaya’s video work, Labadee, which juxtaposes excerpts from Christopher Columbus’ diary with footage from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship visiting Haiti, signals for the viewers the presence of collapsed temporalities along the sea that has been so central to sugar, and the places and peoples it has shaped.
The show succeeds most in demonstrating what Roa identifies as “multiple Caribbeans.” This is found in works that shed light on lesser known histories, such as Renluka Maharaj’s Bhumi’s Daughters, a series of haunting archival images of South Asian women forced to labor in fields in the Caribbean, printed onto silk sari fabric. These multiple Caribbeans are also discursive, seen in a number of works that engage with competing “truths,” such as Coco Fusco’s Message in a Bottle from María Elena / La botella al mar de María Elena that centers on two memories of shared events narrated by perpetrator and victim, or Juana Valdez’s Visual Literacy, which positions academic objects of decolonial practice against a backdrop of African and African American cultural stereotypes constructed in film. Layered and multivocal histories also merge from site-specificity in ways that reveal the Caribbean in New York, and vice versa, such as Jacqueline Herranz Brooks’ repatriated poems that speak back from/to the rubble of inhumane government policies, and Alicia Gullón’s photographs taken inside the Old Stone House in Brooklyn that use her body as a conduit to make the past present.
Joiri Minaya’s mural painting performance, Siboney, was particularly effective at drawing together long-held colonial fantasies of the Caribbean with the embodied realities of those whose identities have been marked by its multiple histories. Here Minaya maneuvers her body against a hand-painted fabric wall whose patterns evoke a vibrant, colorful, tropical paradise. As she moves, she both muddies the image and is marked by it, a dance between making and unmaking, her body resisting the image and, at times, seeming to succumb to it in exhaustion. This element of corporeality is central to the show as a whole, in the ways the body has been marked by histories and traumas of colonialism, but also how the body has historically been located as a powerful site of resistance, resilience, and joy. Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow’s junkanoo parade installation further reminds the viewer that the body in performance is not a contemporary phenomenon, but emerged as a powerful tool to challenge the conditions of coloniality from the moment of their making.
As an art historian whose research centers on contemporary artists who are women, I found myself particularly drawn to the feminist questions raised throughout the exhibition: in what ways have BIPOC women’s identities been shaped by these histories of sugar that knit together and fragment past and present, local and global worlds? How have women continued to locate the body as a multivocal site of colonial convergence and resistance? What other worlds might be shaped by these women’s visible histories and ongoing practices? As a curator, Yohanna M. Roa has been instrumental in extending these complexities across a number of recent WhiteBox shows of which Re-Shaping the Sugar may be understood as a companion. This ongoing focus within the EXODUS series is sure to solidify WhiteBox as a critical space in New York to amplify BIPOC and women-identified artists voices in ways that assert their connections to the most relevant local/global issues of our time. WM
Erin L. McCutcheon is an art historian whose research and writing focus on modern and contemporary Latin American art, feminist artistic practices, and their connections with activist histories. She earned a PhD in Art History and Latin American Studies and a certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies from Tulane University. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Arts of the Americas at the University of Rhode Island and is working on a book project that examines the intersections between art, the women’s movement, and motherhood in post–1968 Mexico City.view all articles from this author