Americana: U.S. Virgin Islands

Histories of Sugar
April 10, 2012 to April 23, 2012

“Our landscape is its own monument: its meaning can only be traced on the underside. It is all history” - *Edouard Glissant

Columbus was thought to have introduced sugar to the Virgin Islands on his second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493. The land of the Antilles was seen by the Europeans as ideal for cultivating the delicacy due to its climate and undeveloped land. When the Europeans began trying to settle the islands, however, there were few who would labor in the heat and humidity. Over the coming centuries, demand for sugar grew exponentially and many colonizing powers looked to Africa for labor. This laid the groundwork for a global sugar market that would become known as the Triangular Trade. The route began in Europe, bringing textiles, iron and guns to Africa in exchange for slaves, elephant tusks and hardwood to the New World. Ports within the Virgin Islands such as Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas were bustling centers of trade with ships arriving from Africa and then departing for Europe or the Eastern Seaboard of the United States with loads of sugar, molasses and rum. While St. Croix was one of the largest producers of sugar, St. Thomas became the site for one of the largest slave auctions in the New World. The proliferation of cheap labor in the islands to work the cane field plantations on St. John and St. Croix numbered in the hundreds. The centers of power and wealth, at the time controlled by sugar and its related markets, were London, Copenhagen, and other European cities.

The effects of colonization are still being felt today in the Virgin Islands. Following Columbus’s brief visit, the lands have been under the control of Holland, France, England, Spain, Denmark, Brandenburg (Germany), the Knights of Malta and Denmark until its purchase by the United States in 1917. Each has left their imprint on the land and local population by producing cultural fissures in the identity of the islanders created by geography, race, religion, culture and language.

The format for the exhibition is appropriated from Guy Debord’s “Psychogeographic guide of Paris (c.1955). The map represents an architectural 'drift' through history, depicting buildings or sites in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Europe, the Gold Coast in Africa and in the continental United States linked in the global sugar trade. There are two ‘drifts’ combined on the map, one through historical research and the other from the curator’s personal documentation, representing a subjective view of the land. Directional arrows, akin to those found on military or maritime trade maps, are splayed across the map, suggesting an ambiguous web of complex indiscernible connections, producing multiple readings of the work to be interpreted by the viewer.

Dane Jensen

*Carribean Discourse

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