The saccharine smell of molasses and brown sugar has been wafting through the second floor of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum for the last few weeks.
The scent is an inadvertent part of “Like Sugar,” an exhibit that puts the commodity in a historical, social and visual context that’s not so sweet. Right from the start, viewers can see advertisements riddled with ridiculous slogans like “Sugar sweetens dispositions,” accompanied by the image of a grumpy child; as if sugar was the cure rather than the cause of grumpiness.
In the next room, there’s a large, chipped kettle drum that was once used to process sugar. Tools that were used to make sugar from sugar cane are nearby in a display case, all looking similarly beaten up. But then, in the same part of the gallery, there are photos of delighted families circled around birthday cakes, brought together by the sugar-filled confections.
“There’s not a single thing on our table that’s not problematic,” said Michael Twitty during a discussion hosted by the museum and Skidmore College earlier this week. Twitty, an author, culinary historian and two-time James Beard Award Winner is all too familiar with the problematic nature of the commodity. As he writes in his book “The Cooking Gene,” his family was “split apart by the might of sugar.” Over the years, he’s traced his ancestral history back, through the lens of food and part of that has included sugar.
During the discussion, Twitty described how his ancestors, and those of many others, were enslaved by sugar plantation owners and how many were sold to different parts of the United States.
“Sugar did that,” Twitty said. He also discussed visiting sugar plantations and sugar plantation museums in Louisiana just a few years ago.
“What’s interesting is between the sugar cane fields and the museums are the homes of black people who still live there . . . A lot of those homes are basically on the same footprint that the slave cabins used to be on,” Twitty said. He was able to visit some of those homes and was dismayed.
“I was really shocked that in 2012, there were homes that still had the one lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and an outhouse. Not living much different from slavery,” Twitty said, “So sugar cane alley is real.”
He toured the fields of sugar cane, imagining what it must have been like to work with these plants that are 13-16 feet tall.
“Just imagine having those heavy canes, [which] are sharp and dangerous and having to hack top [to] bottom, then carrying [them] to the wagon and then to the refinery, where these enslaved men had to make syrup. It was one of the most dangerous jobs because these were 18-hour shifts. You could get beyond third degree burn from the syrup that would become molasses.”
“Like Sugar,” hits on this historical context with primers from 1826 like “The Black Man’s Lament,” which are complete with derogatory and racist illustrations and language.
Nearby is a larger-than-life molasses-colored statue of a boy covered in brown sugar. The piece, called “Marvelous Sugar Baby,” was made by contemporary artist Kara Walker out of cast resin or cast sugar, as part of Walker’s 2014 installation “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.”
The exhibition doesn’t stop there either. It also explores how sugar is sexualized.
In one piece by Will Cotton, a woman is painted and covered not so much in clothes but in candy. Lollipops run across her chest and candy wrappers hang from her waist. The piece, called “Joyous,” is made more powerful when juxtaposed with Becca Rea-Holloway’s works, which use sugar to be salty.
In a pristine display case rests a bright yellow cake with colorful sprinkles and the words“don’t call me honey,” scrawled across it in curling icing. There’s an iPad set up next to the cake so that people can scroll through the rest of Rea-Holloway’s Instagram, which is filled with confections that contain salty, sarcastic and sometimes encouraging feminist messages. (For those who are interested, Rea-Holloway’s account name is thesweetfeminist).
Julia Jacquette’s works touch on a similar topic. Jacquette, who is a Skidmore graduate, painted a series of Duncan Hines cake mix boxes with suggestive phrases like “Curve of your back,” and “Wet of your tongue.” The piece points to this strong desire for and sexualization of sugar.
“Like Sugar,” puts into a chilling context something most of us ingest on a daily basis. It’s not a saccharine story by any means and it goes much deeper than what’s on the nutritional facts label on our food. Because it’s more than food. It’s a catalyst for both celebration and pain.
The exhibition grapples with all of these perspectives on the commodity, offering up a visual and olfactory look at its prosperous and problematic nature. “Like Sugar” runs through June 23 and was organized by Rachel Seligman, the assistant director for curatorial affairs and Malloy Curator, and Sarah Goodwin, professor of English at Skidmore College; with Skidmore faculty Nurcan Atalan-Helicke, associate professor of environmental studies; Trish Lyell, teaching professor of art; and Monica Raveret Richter, associate professor of biology. For more information visit tang.skidmore.edu.