Coffee, Rhum, Sugar and Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox: Some Considerations

Can it really be the case: “Coffee, rum, sugar and gold remain highly valuable commodities and commercially important goods. However, because of their ubiquity, and the passage of time, these items have lost much of their historical gravity and visibility as key drivers of European colonialism”? Perhaps so, in the minds of certain people, but artists from the Caribbean or its diasporas are here to let us know that, to them, these commodities have lost little of their toxicity and venom, as signifiers of troubled histories.

Those alive to ever-present signifiers of enslavement and colonialism, have to look no further than the average bottle of rum. Either the labels contain supposedly comforting artistic renderings of benevolent plantation scenes (Myers’s Jamaican rum being one example) or they boldly and proudly declare that the product has a centuries-old manufacturing pedigree. “Perfected by tradition since 1703” appears on the labels of Barbadian Mount Gay rum. We don’t have to do much speculating as to what sorts of people were obliged to do pretty much all of the work in the manufacturing of rum, from the planting and harvesting of sugar cane to the loading of barrels of the finished product onto ships docked in Caribbean ports, from the early 1700s onwards. The Caribbean rum industry was founded on the backs of enslaved people, a fact somewhat inadvertently, but proudly, declared on the labels of rum bottles.

Artists as varied as María Magdalena Campos-Pons (b. Cuba, 1959) and Keith Piper (b. Malta, 1960) have produced fascinating, forceful work commenting on the ways in which accessible signifiers of the torment, violence and depravity heaped on New World Africans are hidden in plain sight. And now, Coffee, Rhum, Sugar and Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox brings together the works of ten artists - Firelei Báez, Leonardo Benzant, Andrea Chung, Lavar Munroe, Angel Otero, Phillip Thomas, Lucia Hierro, Adler Guerrier, Ebony Patterson and Didier William – that cogently reflect on the legacy of European colonialism in the Caribbean.

In pondering this collective body of work, we do though, have to be mindful of several considerations, though they perhaps now exist as truisms in the realm of Caribbean Art. Firstly, while the theory of diaspora lies at the heart of art practices related to the Caribbean, the practice of diaspora is an altogether more diffused manifestation. We know that a major contributory factor in the creation of the African diaspora was the transatlantic slave trade and the making over of the New World as parts of the world primarily populated by those of African origin. But over the course of half a century or more we have seen what is in effect a distinct transmutation of the African Diaspora which has led to the creation of any number of secondary diasporas. As much as these ten artists can be read as artists of the African Diaspora, they also belong to various respective diasporas – those of the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. People from these and other Caribbean nations have established themselves as oftentimes distinct communities that are linked to, but very much different from, the respective home nations that gave rise to successive waves of emigration to the United States. And each of these secondary diasporas often functions with its own set of cultural reference points, complex sense of nationhood, and constantly shifting sense of belonging and unbelonging. Furthermore, as much as Báez, Benzant, Chung, and company can be read as artists of the African diaspora, they can also, be read as artists whose practices and identities have emerged from distinctly US-based contexts. Living and working as they are, in different parts of the US, they are very much American artists...

The above extracts are from an essay by Eddie Chambers “Coffee, Rhum, Sugar and Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox: Some Considerations”, catalogue text for Coffee, Rhum, Sugar and Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox, curated by Dexter Wimberly and Larry Ossei-Mensah, Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, May 8 – August 11, 2019. Catalogue published September 2019

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