Bitter Poetics: Sugarcane in Caribbean Art

Nohora Arrieta Fernández (Contemporary& América Latina) writes, “Sugarcane was one of the central elements in the European colonization of the Caribbean. It gave rise to slavery and, through art, it nourished the idea of a colonial and idyllic region. Contemporary artists direct a critical gaze on the ambiguous role that sugarcane played in the history of the Caribbean.”

Sugarcane both founded and colonized the Caribbean. It arrived on Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. The first known sugar cane mills in the region began operating in 1506 in the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, while the English began producing sugar in Barbados in 1627.

In 1639, the French followed suit, first in Martinique and then in Guadeloupe. The sugar plantations accelerated the slave trade and the colonial enterprise. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, European travelers and amateur painters – not seldom financed by the plantation owners – painted and narrated the sugar plantation as the protagonist of a colonial and idyllic Caribbean landscape. A picturesque idea that began to be challenged in the 18th century in anti-slavery discourses.

The plantation has intensively occupied the Caribbean imagery. In the first decades of the 20th century, Caribbean and Latin American intellectual elites engaged in a search for a national identity which, ultimately, brought them back to the sugar plantation to construct a national narrative. The book El contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (1940), by Cuban writer Fernando Ortiz, and Casa Grande e Senzala (1933), by Brazilian author Gilberto Freyre, are two canonical examples of sugar essays. Throughout the 20th century, more critical or conflictive images of the plantation appear in the pictorial work of Albert Huie, the poetry of Nicolás Guillén or the painting of Wilfredo Lam.

The last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st have seen a revival of sugarcane plantations for biofuel production as well as a proliferation of debates on the colonial legacy in the Caribbean. In this context, a growing number of Caribbean artists – often in dialogue with intellectuals such as Édouard Glissant from Martinique or Sylvia Wynter from Cuba – is interrogating the plantation’s past and present. These artists examine imaginaries stemming from colonialism, explore the material possibilities of sugar, and discuss the environmental effects of the plantation and the ways in which the violence embedded in the sugar system persists.

Adrift Patrimony: Sugar Refineries, (2004) (Los ingenios: patrimonio a la deriva), by Cuban artist duo Atelier Morales, is a photographic series of the ruins of the twenty-five sugar mills painted by Frenchman Eduardo Laplante for the book Sugar Refineries: Views From The Most Important Sugar Refineries in Cuba (Los Ingenios: colección de vistas de los principales ingenios de la Isla de Cuba), published in 1857. Laplante’s watercolors were an ode to the machinery of the plantation, which appeared surrounded by a landscape of rivers and palm trees.

The color palette and composition in Atelier Morales’s series reproduce the idyllic, almost nostalgic tone of Laplante’s images to in a critique of the current neglect of Cuba’s architectural heritage.

On a similar horizon, Nikolai Noel from Trinidad (Cuba) drew a human figure in a gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University, using caramelized sugar: The Missing, The Murdered, The Maimed and The Manhandled (2011). The sugar stain in Noel’s drawing is puzzling because it is ambiguous and diffuse. On one hand, it opposes the picturesque imagery of the plantation, staining the image of the Caribbean as an idyllic space. On the other hand, it alludes to the Caribbean experience as one tainted by slavery and by the violence of the plantation.

Beyond discussing the past however, Caribbean plantation art also proposes a collective dialogue about the present. The project Machinique (2001), by Martinican Herve Beuze, takes its name from the combination of Machine and Martinique. Beuze builds metal structures in the shape of the map of Martinique and fills them with cane bagasse; then places them in parks or old distilleries where the pieces interrogate the environment. In addition to emphasizing the link between the plantation and the island’s history, Beuze’s structures point to the effects of sugar production on the environment: what was once nature is now debris; a deteriorated landscape.

Another artist who uses bagasse to exemplify environmental destruction is Jamaican Charles Campbell. The oil painting Bagasse (2009), painted on large scale and in black and white, shows a bed of sugarcane waste seen from above. The perspective gives the impression of chaos.

For some of these artists, discussing the plantation means “recreating” the plantation or “feeling” it, which is why installation is a recurring form of expression. Untitled (Havana, 2000), by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera is a sort of tunnel covered with sugarcane bagasse; in the center of the tunnel, a projector presents images of Fidel Castro. Oppression, fear and dread are some of the sensations experienced by the viewer as she travels through Untitled. In Sugar/Bittersweet (2010), fellow Cuban María Magdalena Campos Pons constructs spheres using both brown and refined sugar, which are then perforated by iron spears. Placed in the gallery space, the spears mimic a reed bed that the viewer inhabits. Around the spears, Campos Pons projected a video with images of her relatives, inhabitants of a former plantation. Descended from enslaved Nigerians and Asian workers, Campos-Pons’ gesture introduces a personal narrative into the official history of the sugar plantation.

The body that labors in the plantation is explored by Dominican artist David Pérez in the performance Trata (2005). Pérez hires a Haitian worker to cut five hundred canes, which are then transported to the Plaza de España in the touristic center of Santo Domingo. Here, the artist begins to consume the reeds and, after several hours, suffers hypoglycemic shock.

Trata places the plantation and Haitian labor in the center of the city, in full view of tourists and locals. Just as Pérez consumes the cane, Haitians and Dominicans are consumed by the sugar industry and now by the tourist industry. [. . .]

For full article and artwork, see

[Shown above: “The Sugar Mills, The Bold” by Atelier Morales, 2004. Second: “Machinique” by Hervé Beuze, 2007.]

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