Workers. Cane-cutters. Human resources. Labour. There are lots of shorthand words for referring to the people that work in the fields and who produce the sugar that feeds us. But these words tell us little about their experiences, their attitudes and their desires. In short, they obscure much about their individual and collective identities. Something of this missing identity can be gleaned through the aesthetics of sugar, in this case, visual representations of the sugarcane worker(s). Here are some examples of the ways in which this has been captured by artists working in different media and the political dynamics they highlight (the link on the artist name takes you to the source of the image).
This is one of the most well known paintings of the colonial Caribbean plantation and features on the front of Sidney Mintz’s book Sweetness and Power. It was done by William Clark, an overseer on an Antiguan plantation, as part of his ‘Ten Views of the Island of Antigua’. They were published before Britain had abolished slavery and were used by a Ladies’ Society in the Caribbean for use in teaching black children their role in society. The hierarchy of the cane field is encapsulated by the conversing figures in the foreground: the white planter or overseer looks down from his horse to speak with the black overseer in the red coat, who has removed his hat in deference. He will soon dispense orders to the endless line of cane-cutters, toiling in the face of a tsunami of sugarcane.
This mural introduces the tensions over labour, race and gender that simmered in Mexico after the 1917 Revolution. These inequalities are embodied in the hierarchy evident in the picture, moving from the Indian women in the foreground to the dark-skinned men bent over by the sugarcane, to the lighter-skinned men literally above them on the horse and veranda, respectively. Diego Rivera was a socialist and the Marxist idea that rich property-owners prosper off the backs of waged labour is starkly displayed here. The inclusion of the Indian woman and girl collecting papayas perhaps also suggests how this system of production affected work beyond the plantation too, leading to exploitation of the family. Certainly at the time of painting, viewers were unaccustomed to seeing Mexico’s native people as a worthy subject of high art, and many objected loudly to Rivera’s large-scale depictions of indigenous figures.
Mario Carreño was a Cuban painter and this picture shows muscular and forceful cane cutters in what was then the country’s most important industry. The balletic movement of the workers also recalls to my mind ‘The Dance of the Millions’, which is the name given to the period in 1919-1920 when investors in Cuba engaged in reckless financial speculation on sugar. The sudden spike and crash of sugar prices had disastrous affects for workers and their families.
George Beattie’s paintings were commissioned in 1956 to depict the history of agriculture in the USA state of Georgia. Transitioning from half-naked Native Americans cultivating corn to a 20th-century veterinary lab, the developmental trajectory alights at halfway at this depiction of strapping slaves harvesting sugarcane. Beattie’s friend George Beasley acknowledged that he had a penchant for idealised imagery, which perhaps explains the similarities with Soviet-era political propaganda. Nevertheless, despite this compromise with Georgia’s slave history, in 2010 the state’s new Agricultural Commissioner insisted that they be removed for not presenting an appropriate picture of agriculture.
Nilson Pimenta worked as a farmhand, sugarcane planter and cane-cutter in Brazil before going to live in the city of Cuiabá in 1978. He began drawing with colouring pencils that same year and first used paints in 1980. This picture brings to mind a movement of biblical proportions, sweeping up all humans, animals and plant-life in its wake.
Set during the 1920s-1940s, Laura Kina’s paintings are intended to recall obake ghost stories and feature Japanese and Okinawan ‘picture-brides’ turned machete-carrying field labourers on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Picture-brides refers to the practice in the early 20th century of immigrant workers (chiefly Japanese and Korean) in Hawai’i and the West Coast of the US selecting brides from their native countries via a matchmaker, who paired bride and groom using only photographs and family recommendations of the possible candidates. The artist herself is a descendant of a male Okinawan plantation worker from the Big Island. The picture, for me, hints at the alienation that many migrant workers who end up in cane fields must feel. It is also notable for focusing entirely on the labouring female body, which is often written out of representations of sugar labour, for all that it is a generally masculinised occupation.
Zwelethu Mthethwa is a South African photographer and painter who has taken pictures of migrant workers in mining and in sugarcane in the country. This picture was part of a Wellcome Trust sponsored collection on global health, in which Mthethwa wanted to subvert the dehumanisation inherent in statistics and emphasise the human faces attached to data. In this picture in particular, he also puts the artist in the frame, reminding us that all images are produced and that they are done by someone for some purpose. This can serve as a useful reminder when we find ourselves confronted by documentary exposes on the one hand, and slick corporate presentations on the other. Both are produced for a reason, and neither can give us unvarnished and unmediated access to the truth.
In a disused sugar refinery in New York, the artist Kara Walker had installed a giant female sphinx with a twist – a black woman coated in 160,000 pounds of refined white sugar. With its deliberately racialised features, the sphinx sparked much reflection. Did the sphinx’s maid-servant kerchief, bare breasts and inflated buttocks reinforce negative stereotypes of the Afro-American woman, or did it recast her in a new position of power? Was the artwork a lament about the closure of the sugar refinery and the factory jobs it provided to black workers or a critique of the continued bodily damage wrought by sugar on the black population in the form of dietary-related disease? Whatever the answers reached, it was evident that the lived history of sugar still remained relevant to the way identity and exploitation could be collectively understood.