The exhibition Notes on Sugar presents an exceedingly rare opportunity for us to see a body of work by María Magdalena Campos-Pons, a Cuban-born artist whose practice represents a dynamic and compelling aspect of contemporary art with pronounced links to the history of Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean. Though a major curatorial undertaking that took place in New York about five years ago declared the Caribbean to be “at the Crossroads of the World,” it is, sadly, very much the case that beyond those who live there or who have familial connections to the region, the Caribbean is a zone that scarcely registers on the wider international, cultural or political stage. What looks like willful disengagement or indifference is all the more perplexing if we acknowledge that so much of what we know as modernity, several centuries in the making, was fashioned in the so-called New World (with the Caribbean at its epicenter).
It was of course the Atlantic Slave Trade, taking place between the sixteenth and late nineteenth centuries, that saw the forging and honing of globalization, of the commodification of people as units of labor, of the embedding of capitalism in pretty much all aspects of the ways in which we live. This regarding of the Caribbean as a laboratory for globalization—that is, the seemingly unstoppable international flows of capital, in pursuit of ever greater dividends that benefit fewer and fewer people outside of the financial elite—is seldom acknowledged by economists and historians beyond those with pronounced connections to the region.
In engaging with this body of work by Campos-Pons, we are in many respects obliged to consider another vexatious legacy of the making of the New World; that is, racial hierarchies in which the default position is to locate whiteness at the top of a pyramid of humanity, with increased gradations of color, ending with the world’s darkest people at the base of the pyramid. We might argue or speculate about the extent to which Cuba’s post-1959 governance has sought to challenge racial hierarchies, but it certainly remains the case that across the Caribbean region, notwithstanding the majority populations of African descent, white privilege continually manifests itself within the spheres of the economic and the social. We here in the US might perhaps need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that these concerns are abstract. With tourism being a leading earner of much sought-after US dollars and equivalent currencies. for many nations in the Caribbean, we would do well to recognize that it is perhaps within this industry that we see the most explicit manifestation of the power and operating of whiteness, in its interactions with, or proximity to, black bodies.
…. Were it not for the ravages of diabetes among populations of the African Diaspora, we might perhaps regard the infinitely destructive capabilities of sugar as history’s revenge, particularly given that sugar is not a food and interacts with the human body with characteristics more akin to a narcotic than a form of edible nourishment. Going back to at least the time of Campos-Pons’s birth, Caribbean artists, and artists with African and Caribbean backgrounds, have utilized the subject, or the materiality, of sugar in their work. For example, in 1960, the Guyanese painter Aubrey Williams executed a graphic and bloody painting recalling the 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion. The painting, titled Revolt, depicts an unshackled slave—Accara, one of the uprising’s leaders—cutlass in hand, wreaking terrible and dreadful revenge on his tormentors. An important aspect of the painting is the symbolism of the sugarcane stalks that stand in a corner of the painting, near the scene of carnage. Thus, within the painting, Williams references sugarcane production as emblematic of the slaves’ wretched, miserable, and dehumanized condition. As novelist, playwright, and poet Jan Carew observed, “The gold Guiana yielded was to come mainly from sugar and slavery."
The above extracts are from a catalogue text, “Maria Magdalena Campos Pons: Some Considerations", for Notes on Sugar/Like the Lonely Traveler, A two-part curated by Neon Queen Collective, Christian-Green Gallery, January 25 - May 5, 2018, and Visual Arts Center, September 21 - December 8, 2018