Monday, February 1, 2016

Sweetness and light - art, sugar and slavery.

Marianne Behaeghel's joint exhibition 'Sugar' ended the week at St. John's on a sweet note and the gallery was elegantly graced by both edible cakes made by parents and paintings and drawings of the same made by students in sweet and delicate pastel tints.  

Given the problems of tooth decay, obesity and heart disease anyone would imagine that having a ‘sweet tooth’ was kind of addictive enslavement to sugary desires but a darker kind of enslavement is bound up with the history of sugar and this was also gently alluded to in the photography by Arnaud Pitz. 

The ‘black gold’ of the contemporary world is almost certainly oil but in the 18th century for a period ‘white gold’ was the sugar produced by slaves transported from Africa through the port of Liverpool in the ‘middle passage’ to work in the plantations of America and the Caribbean.  This triangle involved the cruel exploitation of the labour of enslaved people used to manufacture the commodities of global trade and capital in the context of colonialism and the industrial revolution, feeding an insatiable desire for this new ‘sweetness’  in the emerging markets of the newly prosperous nations,  in addition to other commodities like cotton, tobacco and rum which found their way back across the Atlantic to Liverpool and other cities. 

Tate and Lyle developed their sugar refining industry in Liverpool and elsewhere on the back of this trade and eventually in 1889 Henry Tate used the enormous wealth accumulated to endow a major national museum, an institution very much at the heart of British art and culture, the Tate Gallery, which has since been followed by series of museums including The Tate Gallery in Liverpool built in 1980s in the renovated site of Jessie Hartley’s Albert dock and warehouses. Ironically in the same site you can find the International Slavery Museum, the only national museum in the world dedicated to the history of the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy. Like Able Magwhich in Dicken’s ‘Great Expectations', the uncouth criminal turned self-made man in Australia, who uses his new wealth to transform Pip, who helped him in the marshes when he was a fugitive, into a gentleman, money like sugar was being refined and made respectable by being turned into high art and culture and given as a ‘gift’ to a grateful nation.

The blood horses of them colonists might fling up the dust over me as I was walking; what do I say? I says to myself, 'I'm making a better gentleman nor ever you'll be!' When one of 'em says to another, 'He was a convict, a few year ago, and is a ignorant common fellow now, for all he's lucky,' what do I say? I says to myself, 'If I ain't a gentleman, nor yet ain't got no learning, I'm the owner of such. All on you owns stock and land; which on you owns a brought-up London gentleman?' This way I kep myself a-going. And this way I held steady afore my mind that I would for certain come one day and see my boy, and make myself known to him, on his own ground."

Magwhich in GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens (1860-61)

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