In a romantic oil painting by Will Cotton, Katy Perry lies naked on a cotton candy cloud, a whisper of pink spun sugar draped over her butt. The landscape bulges and billows with emphatic softness, dominating the painting except for a hint of blue sky. Perry offers a look both languid and post-orgasmic, lips parted, her hair nostalgically curled like a 1950s pinup. When the painting made its debut on the cover of Perry’s 2010 album Teenage Dream, it sat somewhere between commercial pop and high-art comment on all of the above. The uncomfortable excess of Cotton’s work was used to sell uncomfortable excess. And it all hinged on sugar.
Sugar is sprinkled everywhere in our language. When children are good and happy, they are cutie pies. Cool stuff can be “sweet, man.” Our crush is a sweetheart, and our sweetheart might be our honey. “A spoonful of sugar,” as Mary Poppins croons, is a bribe, something to help “the medicine go down.” Sugar is leisure and celebration — what British birthday would be complete without the stickiness of cake frosting on fingers? It is, according to Roland Barthes, an attitude — as integral to the concept of Americanness as wine is to Frenchness. In the 1958 hit song “Sugartime,” to which Barthes was referring, the sunny, smiling McGuire Sisters harmonize sweetly, filling their mouths with honey: “Sugar in the mornin’ / Sugar in the evenin’ / Sugar at suppertime / Be my little sugar / And love me all the time.”
And like anything pleasurable, sugar is often characterized as a vice. The flood of industrial sugar into packaged food has real public health consequences, but predictably, the backlash has taken on a puritanical zeal far beyond reasonable concerns. Sugar is “America’s drug of choice,” one headline claimed. “Is sugar the world’s most popular drug?” wondered another. Even those selling sugary food winkingly parrot the language of addiction — consider Milk Bar’s notoriously sticky, seductively sweet Crack Pie. A drug that decimated predominantly poor, black American communities is now a punchline for middle-class white indulgence.
For black Americans, sweetness was an essential ingredient in Jim Crow-era stereotypes designed to keep newly emancipated people from their rights. Those stereotypes persist — and even generate profit — today. The racist trope of watermelon-eating African Americans, popularized in this era, framed black people as simpletons and children craving nothing beyond a sweet slice of melon. Aunt Jemima, a character derived from minstrel shows, is the apotheosis of the happy, nurturing “mammy” stereotype, empty and filled with sweet syrup, her smile used to sell sugar for PepsiCo. “The shelf on which i sit,” reads Lucille Clifton’s poem “Aunt Jemima”:
between the flour and cornmeal
is thick with dreams
oh how i long for
my own syrup
rich as blood
my true nephews my nieces
my kitchen my family
And sugar’s history is brutal. The artist Kara Walker tackled a profoundly different collision of femininity and sweetness than Katy Perry on a candy cloud when she conceived of a 35-foot sugar sphinx inside the former Domino Sugar Refinery in 2014. Titled A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, Walker’s sculpture was the single largest piece of public art ever shown in New York City. A crouching black woman made from 40 tons of glistening white sugar, surrounded by life-sized figurines of black boys carrying bananas or baskets, she hunched forward on her toes, knees, and forearms, her lips, breasts, butt, and labia swelling round in cartoonish extravagance — an uneasy reflection of the fetishization of black women’s bodies and the commodification of their flesh. The sugar sphinx, the artist wrote in the work’s full title, was “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.”
Sugar is survival. It is a respite for palates swept clean of childish joy for too long. It is sexual desire and pleasure, and also temptation and sin. And it is a commodity, one historically produced with some of the most brutal labor practices on the planet. In the Western imagination, sugar is pleasure, temptation, and vice — and in modern history, it is original sin.
Sweetness is a primal pleasure, like warmth or softness. Our desire to find, taste, and consume it is profoundly natural, but our quest to make more of it, to cook, bake, caramelize, and fry our way to sweet — that is profoundly human. Our love of sugar is shaped when we’re gummy infants, and follows us through adulthood into gummy old age. One study found that when sweet solutions were injected into the womb, fetuses, whose nutritional needs are entirely met by the umbilical cord, swallowed more amniotic fluid. When bitter solutions were injected, less was swallowed. Another study found that anencephalic infants — babies born with much of their brain mass missing, and who rarely live longer than a few hours — reacted positively when a sweet substance was placed on their lips, and grimaced when given something bitter, even though they lacked the part of the brain typically responsible for taste.
In the current age of abundant, industrial food, this sweet tooth is considered hedonistic. But our love of sugar is about survival: Where food was scarce, sweetness offered a clue it contained a large number of much-needed calories, just as an aversion to bitterness kept us away from many toxic plants. Even the breast milk that humans produce is sweet.
In nature, sweetness often accompanies ripeness, in just-picked peapods and baby corn cobs as well as melon slices and punnets of late-season cherries. As chef and author Samin Nosrat explained to me, “At the farmer’s market … one of the highest compliments is to say that something is very sweet.” Unlike the sledgehammer thwack of candy, natural sweetness is in constant flux, according to Nosrat, receding from the moment the fruit or vegetable is picked. “Peas,” she said, “can taste totally different from one day to the next.”
Cooking unlocks sweetness in wondrous ways, and we’ve become experts in harnessing that power: Red bell peppers are sweet when they’re roasted, and onions yield to a sticky, caramelized tangle if cooked slowly. Entire meal courses are devoted to candies, chocolate, cakes, ice cream, and pie. These foods — from sticky slabs of ginger cake to root beer floats — are joy that unfurls across the tongue. Molecules responsible for sweetness fit with protein receptors on the taste buds like pieces of some honeyed jigsaw puzzle.
It is also a pleasure contained in its own little box. For American and western European palates, sweetness occupies its own lonely niche in our cooking, sequestered and scrutinized. We have steaks and lobster rolls and quiche and potatoes and pizza ... and then dessert separately, afterward. We eat vegetables and milk and bread ... and then ice cream as a treat. Sugar is craved one moment, and controlled the next.
We’ve not always had such polarized tastes. Capon (a type of castrated cockerel, bred for eating), blanched almonds, rice, lard, salt, and sugar were the cornerstones of a medieval blancmange, or blank mang, as it was written in the 14th-century The Forme of Cury, one of the earliest-known collections of English cookery writing. The blancmange Brits are familiar with today is a sweet milk custard, set like a jelly, often in a decorative mold. The medieval version is a jarring admixture of sugar alongside meat. And this was in no way an unusual dish. Sweet courses were interspersed throughout a meal, and dishes such as frytour of erbes, or honeyed herb fritters, whose recipe is also archived in The Forme of Cury, straddled the sweet-savory divide. With such a strikingly different culinary grammar, the idea of a monolithic, wondrous, dreadful sugar would hardly have made sense to medieval cooks. Sweetness was not a behemoth category in itself, but a seasoning, no different than salt, or a pinch of spice.
In many cultures, this sugar-salt symphony is still foundational. “The food I grew up eating every night — that is to say, Persian home cooking — is all about balancing the plate with sweet and sour, salty and rich, crisp and soft,” says Nosrat. “Fresh and dried fruits — pomegranates, sour cherries, dates, raisins — all regularly found their way onto our dinner plates. So I have always been drawn to a little sweetness in my food.”
Food writer Yemisi Aribisala explained to me that Nigerian tastes demand sweet with an acidic counterbalance: “There won’t be any kind of dessert accompanying meals in most homes. People will snack on star apples (which are very tart) or cashew fruits, almond fruits, or guavas. I can’t even bring to mind one common fruit that is like the European apple, with considerably more sweetness than tartness.”
Some vestiges of this approach to flavor remain in Western cooking — sugar coaxes out flavor in everything from ketchup to honey-glazed ham — but these happy harmonies are largely erased by rigid taxonomies. In a 2016 article in the Charlotte Observer, Kathleen Purvis documented the disdain that white Southerners often hold for their black neighbors’ cornbread: light, cakey, and sweetened with sugar, compared to the paler, more savory cornbreads that cater to white tastes. Food writer Ronni Lundy once commented that, “If God had meant cornbread to have sugar, he would have made it cake.” Rather than finding value in the million ways that good taste can manifest, we are drawn into a polarized debate, where blackness is sweetness and excess, and whiteness is tasteful restraint.
How has sweetness — something we are evolutionarily programmed to like, for survival — come to stand in for sex and escapism and hedonism? Humans are metaphor machines, and our mouths are liminal places where food and words mingle, where hot dogs, tagliatelle, and Nigerian puff puff meet “my name is,” memory, and “I.” True synesthesia — the blurring between one sense and another — is relatively rare, but its logic pervades our language, so that trumpets might sound hot, or sadness taste sour. One study found that honeycomb toffee tastes less sweet when eaten whilst listening to a “bitter” soundtrack than when eaten whilst listening to a “sweet” soundtrack. And our senses don’t just crisscross randomly — “How come silence is sweet but sweetness isn’t silent?” one paper asked.
No sugared association is stronger than that between sweetness and femininity. Girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Women are honey, sweetheart, cupcake, candy girl, honeybunch — or they’re tarts. In the Bible, “The lips of an adulterous woman drip honey” (Proverbs 5:3). Meanwhile, black women have been “caramel,” “brown sugar,” “mocha latte,” “chocolate,” and “molasses” — both desired and diminished. Making sweet foods is considered women’s work — and eating them is, too. Girls receive an Easy-Bake Oven; cake mixes are marketed exclusively to women; home bakers are overwhelmingly female. Candy and chocolate are so heavily feminized that a Yorkie bar in the UK — normal chocolate, massive chunks — until recently stood out by marketing itself as “not for girls.”
It’s not just in American and European food cultures that this holds true. I spoke to food writer and journalist Mayukh Sen about the gendering of foods within Bengali cuisine. “Sweetness is very much gendered female in Bengali cooking,” he explained. “There’s a word, mishti, that stands for both Bengali sweets and is also used to describe someone, usually a woman, who is ‘sweet’ (pleasant, youthful, and non-threatening/demure).” In Japan, amato and karato refer to those who love sweets and those who prefer salty, savory, and spicy foods, respectively, and yet these labels loosely trace the dividing line between men and women. Jon D. Holtzman writes that a Kyoto-based confectioner — by all accounts a man who loved his sweets — assured him that he was more a karato kind of guy: “strong, energetic and ambitious.”
The collision of women and sex and sugar reaches a metaphorical and not-so-metaphorical climax in Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, with those sumptuous cotton candy clouds, and Perry’s nakedness. The same aesthetic runs through the “California Gurls” video — a project that Cotton also consulted on — as Perry sweeps through a world of candy canes and gummy bears in a cupcake bra. Perry continues to use food as part of her brand’s visual language, last year premiering the video for her single “Bon Appétit,” in which she is kneaded, picked over, sliced, and cooked by celebrity chef Roy Choi.
Will Cotton’s art has, since the late 1990s, been obsessed, and stickily engaged, with sugar. Beginning with 1998 paintings of eerie candy trailers and housing projects — recalling the fairytale gingerbread cottage — Cotton painted a series of ever-more-excessive and surreal candy landscapes. Women begin to populate these landscapes in the early 2000s, with sultry nudes bathing in hot chocolate, or reclining on sugar sands. In one, a topless young woman looks intently through the edge of the canvas, a many-tiered cake perched atop her head like a crown. In another, a nude woman sits astride a sea creature — a seething, swelling ice cream thing, rising from tumbling waves, spume, and spray. Every inch of these scenes is saturated with sugar and sex, where a time-old narrative unfolds: about all the temptations your mother warned you about, about lust, greed, instant gratification, and tooth-rotting candy.
Cotton takes the culture’s ready metaphors — the cotton candy cloud and the perky butt; a landscape of erect candy canes; a macaron-clad woman, good enough to eat — and magnifies them to the point of absurdity. And yet there’s no sense of subversion in this surrealness: In fact, Cotton plays directly and uncritically into the sexist tropes he portrays. The women in his artworks are non-threatening, limp, and inviting (albeit in an unsettling way), and despite the omnipresence of food in the scenes, the women occupying these landscapes never eat: They are there not to consume, but to be consumed. In a review of Cotton’s 2011 show at the Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles, Leah Ollman wrote: “Exhausting familiar sexist correspondences between women and fantasy, desire, indulgence and consumption, the work exploits a single gimmick to the point of sugar shock.” What’s more, the young, white, limber women draped over Cotton’s candy clouds raise an important question: In a world where sweetness is innocence, and innocence is whiteness, who is allowed to be sweet?
If Cotton’s oeuvre is populated by an almost entirely white parade of female hedonists, Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx is physical, imposing, and powerful. Like so many conversations about femininity, bringing race into the picture of sweetness upends and complicates familiar narratives — and forces the viewer to confront truths they might not want to see.
“When we arrived in Barbados,” wrote Olaudah Equiano in his 1789 autobiography, “many merchants and planters came on board and examined us. We were then taken to the merchant’s yard, where we were all pent up together like sheep in a fold. On a signal the buyers rushed forward and chose those slaves they liked best.” Having already suffered the brutality of the Middle Passage — the journey from the west coast of Africa to the Americas, during which up to 20 percent of people considered “cargo” would die — these auctions marked the beginning of a new, nightmarish chapter in the lives of enslaved people like Equiano. They were branded and given new names, stripped of every vestige of their freedom, language, and identity, dehumanized by the people who bought them. From the planting of the cane to the boiling of the syrup, sugar plantations ran on the blood and sweat of enslaved African laborers. “When [English people] go to the West Indies they forget God and all feelings of shame, I think, since they can see and do such things,” wrote Mary Prince in 1831. “They tie up slaves like hogs — moor them up like cattle, and they lick them, so as hogs, or cattle, or horses never were flogged.”
The brutality of sugar’s history is often erased beneath a parade of craving, cake, and metaphor, and Walker’s sphinx confronts and shames this forgetting in an extraordinary way. To my mind, it is a paradox: Its crouch is both submissive and the precursor to a deadly pounce; in all those tons of pure white sugar is a grandeur at odds with the meek honeys, sugars, and sweethearts we’re used to. It refuses the ahistorical fantasy narratives that sugar has so long been used to invoke, and instead plants its feet firmly in the context of a brutal, racist exploitation. By creating a monumental black body — specifically a black woman’s body — from sugar in this place where it was once refined into whiteness that was built on blood, Walker inverted the hierarchy of worth: Blackness was now a precious, extraordinary thing, and pure, white, sugar mere material.
Unlike Cotton’s saccharine dreamscape, this setting was confrontational physicality, anchored in the earth, and inseparable from the histories of slave labor that forged it. The factory “stank of molasses,” Walker explained to Doreen St. Félix in Vulture. “The history would not dry.”
Walker’s childhood was one of contrasts between the integration and acceptance she’d found in Stockton, California, and the racism leveled at her during her high school years in Stone Mountain, Georgia; between the whiteness that molded the institutions she studied within, and the defiant blackness she channeled through her work. After earning an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994, she immediately found global recognition with her murals: stories of race, sex, violence, and gender told through cut-paper silhouettes. In one of her most famous — Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart — caricatured figures dance across the walls in a story of sex and slavery. Walker’s art is an uneasy juxtaposition: black paper on white walls; racist stereotypes replayed and reconfigured in a black woman’s art; the brutality of slavery playing out against dreamy antebellum landscapes. This curdling of opposites is the artistic context from which Walker’s sugar sphinx arose: historic ruins and an urgent, unlikely sweetness.
Stuart Hall alluded to this shared history of blackness and sugar when he famously wrote, “I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea.” A black, Jamaican-born theorist living and working in London, Hall could feel — even taste — the legacy of the enslaved black people who bled for Britain’s colonial wealth. It has been estimated that British ships took almost 3.4 million enslaved people from Africa to the Caribbean and North America over a 245-year period between the first expeditions to the Americas and the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. These enslaved people provided Britain with the wealth, reach, and manpower to muscle their way to an empire which, at its peak, commanded nearly a quarter of the global population.
Slowly, accounts like Equiano’s had begun to resonate with the British public who, when faced with details of the true horror of the industry, could no longer indulge in sweet tea and slices of cake without tasting the bodies of the enslaved people who had suffered for that sugar. The inhumane conditions of sugar production didn’t end with abolition, though. The sugar industry has been accused of complicity in forced labor in the U.S. as recently as 1989, and in the Caribbean in 2001, with the UN’s International Labour Organization describing the treatment of Haitian sugar workers in the Dominican Republic as “one of the most widely documented instances of coercive labour contracting over the past two decades.” A report by Verité found that workers in the Dominican Republic were often kept — through the prohibitive cost of transport compared to the meagerness of the wages, and thanks to their undocumented status — within workers’ compounds of the plantations there, not given the liberty to move freely. Workers brought in illegally from Haiti were subjected to threats and kept in the dark about the kind of work they would be doing, what they would be paid, and what freedoms they’d have. What’s more, these workers were found to be kept in a state of indebtedness to their employers, rendering them unable to leave. This exploitative and often unlawful transplanting of laborers is an example of what anthropologist Sidney Mintz was referring to when he wrote that “sugar ... has been one of the massive demographic forces in world history ... Sugar still moves people about the Caribbean today.”
A Subtlety was dismantled in 2014, but in 2017 the sculpture’s left hand made its way to the Deste Foundation Project Space on the Greek island of Hydra. In its new home, encrusted with yet more sugar, the hand was sweetened, not in spite of, but because of, displacement and dismemberment. This relic of a masterpiece was reborn as Figa. Fingers clamped in a now little-used expletive gesture — thumb clasped between index and middle finger — it was defiant. In pre-Renaissance Italy, this was mano in fica, or fig hand, both sweet and explicit, standing for the ripeness — and rudeness — of a cunt.
Walker is not the only black woman artist to eschew binaries and instead speak about life’s necessary blending of sweetness and suffering. Walker’s melding of opposites — blackness, whiteness, brutality, humor, industry, myth, blood, and sugar — is a resistance to and repurposing of the impossible demands society makes of black women: to be docile but also assertive, thick-skinned but still malleable, available but not free. From within this chaos, black women find a way to blend the sugar and the suffering.
Beyoncé is a vocal fan of Walker, calling her one of her favorite artists in a 2016 interview for Garage magazine. Like Walker, Beyoncé spins her own bittersweet narratives into art. “I’ma rain, I’ma rain on this bitter love / Tell the sweet I’m new,” she sings on “Freedom.” “I was served lemons,” reads Hattie White, Jay-Z’s grandmother, on the track’s outro, “but I made lemonade.”
As bell hooks writes of Beyoncé’s Lemonade in her essay “Moving Beyond Pain,” “to be truly free, we must choose beyond simply surviving adversity, we must dare to create lives of sustained optimal well-being and joy. In that world, the making and drinking of lemonade will be a fresh and zestful delight, a real life mixture of the bitter and the sweet, and not a measure of our capacity to endure pain, but rather a celebration of our moving beyond pain.”
If Will Cotton’s paintings — resplendent with pure, idealized fantasy — are the sweetness we lazily dream of, Walker’s A Subtlety is the sweetness we actually live: rearing up through centuries of hurt and exploitation, planting its feet in the good and the bad, the pleasure and the pain. It crystallizes across the surfaces of our imperfect lives, and makes us shine.