This exhibition focuses on the visual imagery of sugar in the Americas, examining how this sweet, powerful, and often destructive commodity was depicted in books, single sheet prints, and maps that are in the collection of the John Carter Brown Library.
Sugarcane seems to have originated in New Guinea and, between the fourth and eighth centuries, was grown in India and the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The peoples of the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean introduced sugar to Europeans before the latter began cultivating the plant. In the fourteenth century the Spanish and Portuguese began production of sugar in earnest in the Madeira Islands, the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands. Columbus brought sugarcane from the Cape Verde Islands to the Americas on his second voyage in 1493; it was first grown in Santo Domingo, and the first American exports of sugar to Europe began around 1516.
Sugar is a shape shifter: it can be visualized as a plant, a white crystalline powder, and a liquid; mixed with other materials, it can take fantastic ornamental shapes. In the early modern period, as now, sugar was commonly an unseen presence, lending its invisible sweetening power to tea, coffee, candy, and other confections. But sugar was more than a sweetener: it was the engine driving a large part of the slave trade and colonial commerce of the Americas, especially in the Caribbean and South America. It has profoundly changed human bodies, societies, and eco-systems.
In order to represent this commodity, artists and printmakers reworked genres and conventions established for other commodities and processes with results that suggest the vexed circumstances of sugar production arising from slave labor. Some of the most striking and elaborate representations of sugar appear in rather unexpected places, such as graphic satires and children’s books. In this exhibition, visitors are invited not simply to look “through” the images on display to apprehend their subject matter, but rather to examine the images as representations, which depend upon conventions and genres specific to the realm of visual culture and to the historical moment in which they were produced.