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  Sugar Coated Tears
Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Chris Gilligan
posted 24 October 2007

This exhibition is silent.
It speaks to me.

Sugar Coated Tears is one of the many exhibitions which have been put on to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. The links between the slave trade and the slave ports of Liverpool, Bristol and London are obvious. Hull is able to celebrate the role of Wilberforce in the abolition of the slave trade. The role of Wolverhampton in the slave trade is less immediately obvious, and for this reason a reflection on the role of Wolverhampton and the West Midlands in the slave trade provides insights into aspects of the slave trade which might not otherwise have been highlighted.

The exhibition focuses on the West Midlands as a centre of the iron industry and the products that it provided to facilitate the slave trade. The exhibition contains heavy black chains, manacles (for wrists, angles and necks), a black cast-iron mask that looks like it was used as some kind of a cruel restraining device. These artifacts of the slave trade were forged and beaten, specifically for this exhibition, by Lofty Wright (a local Black Country blacksmith), in collaboration with the Jamaican born artist Vanley Burke (a long-standing resident of Birmingham). Around the walls of the exhibition are reproductions of materials that Burke found during his researches in the archives of Birmingham library. These include: a chilling poem about children, sweet tooths and slave-labour in the cane fields; a drawing of black slaves being punished on a treadmill, and advertisements seeking to promote the sale of some of the products of West Midlands industry, such as manacles, to slave traders and owners.

The West Midlands did not only send manufactured products to be employed in the slave trade, it was also the recipient of goods produced on slave plantations. The exhibition also draws attention to the traffic of sugar from the West Indies to the West Midlands. Just inside the entrance to the exhibition space tree branches, tied together and coated in sugar, are suspended from the ceiling. In order to view these branches the gallery visitor has to look skyward, putting a slight strain on the neck. The strain is a physical hint at the purpose of the branches, as restraints on which slaves were bound – crucifixion style – in order to make them more supplicant and thus easier to transport. The sugar encrustacean on the branches is slowly decomposing and a slow, languid, drip, drip, drip of treacly sugar is falling onto a plastic sheet below, and forming pools of liquefied sugar. In the centre of the exhibition space is a wooden pallet strewn with what I had first thought were the sugar tears in the title of the exhibition. On closer inspection, however, it turns out that they are sugar-cast manilas. This centerpiece in the exhibition (entitled Value: one life) was produced by Victoria Burgher and is a comment on the production of cast iron manilas (which look like bracelets) which were produced, many of them in the West Country, to be used as a form of currency in west Africa. The reference to ‘one life’ in the title is a hint at the low value afforded to African life; an enslaved African could be exchanged for a single manila.

This exhibition is silent. It speaks to me.
In the stillness of the gallery space.
Brutality. Sweetness. Slavery. Race.

Given the subject matter of the exhibition it could be ponderous, harrowing, cloying. But it is not. The exhibition space is still. Silent. It feels light and airy. The chains and manacles hang suspended from the ceiling; appearing weightless and ponderous simultaneously. Their suspension hints at people being manacled, but the presence of these people is spectral. The drips of liquefying sugar suggest teardrops. But it could be rain, or sweat. The pools of liquid sugar suggest blood, but the faint sweet aroma suggests otherwise. The exhibition alludes to a host of obvious symbolism or analogy, but avoids anything obvious.

It would be easy to turn the history of the slave trade into a morality tale of victim and perpetrator. This exhibition avoids this easy option. Rather than reworking the past this exhibition seems to suggest that things have moved on. The collaboration between the white blacksmith and the black artist hint at this. The subject matter of the exhibition, however, plunges us into the past. Things have changed, we live in different times, but we are continually pulled back into the past, but only ever as spectators.

In his book Why? the American sociologist Charles Tilly explores causality and explanation. Tilly suggests, and apparently there is some evidence for this from cognitive sciences, that human beings we are hardwired to seek explanations. Part of the power of this exhibition seems to come from its suggestion of different points in a narrative, but a narrative in which we are left to fill in the connections between the points. The contrasts in the exhibition – the heavy, solid, iron and its suspension as if it is light and insubstantial; the black Jamaican and the white blacksmith; the sweet sugar and the cast iron – appear together, but part of our mind struggles to place them together.

The exhibition works not by making statements but by creating spaces which invite us to try to make connections, so that long after leaving the stillness of the exhibition space I find myself haunted by an echo of the exhibition.

This exhibition is silent.
This exhibition is silent.
This exhibition is silent.
It speaks to me.

Sugar Coated Tears is at Wolverhampton Art Gallery till Friday 26 October 2007.


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