September 28, 2018

sugar bound :: Gallery Guide

If you’re wondering about the significance of sugar or the preponderance of colonial furniture or jungle imagery in sugar bound, read on.

By Heather Link-Bergman

The work in Suchitra Mattai’s sugar bound explores a period in history and a region that many may not be familiar with. To help provide more context to the exhibition, we created this guide to give visitors more background on the themes found in the work. So, if you’re wondering about the significance of sugar or the preponderance of colonial furniture or jungle imagery in sugar bound, read on.


On Guyana:

Map of Guyana 

Guyana is a country on South America’s Atlantic coast. Guyana, or British Guiana, was once a British colony and was part of the British West Indies. Guyana is known for its dense rainforests and is noted for its colonial architecture. Once inhabited by indigenous people, today Guyana’s largest ethnic group are descendants of indentured servants from India. Guyana is culturally similar to neighboring islands in the Caribbean and shares many culinary and celebratory traditions.


The Indian Indenture System:

 Image of sugar cane

After slavery was abolished in 1833, plantation owners kept up with the demand for sugar by bringing in indentured workers from India. This practice continued for close to 100 years before it ended in 1917. During this time period, Indian workers were brought to many other sugar-producing colonies like Trinidad, Jamaica, Mauritius and Fiji which resulted in a large Indo-Caribbean diaspora in the Caribbean and Pacific Islands that still exists today.

Indenture agreements were not good for workers. Workers were considered “indentured”  because they were in debt to their employer for their travel expenses to the colony and were expected to pay their employers back. Many indenture agreements required a long period of service in exchange for very low wages. Work on the sugar plantations was hard but many indentured workers had no choice but to work – even if conditions were horrible.

Travel to the colony was also challenging, to say the least. Workers endured long, arduous and crowded sea passages that lasted for months. Conditions were dangerous with rampant disease and malnutrition. The trip was especially dangerous for women as assault, rape and mistreatment were common and often unpunished, or even acknowledged.

Despite the harsh conditions in the colonies, some workers sought indentured labor as a means to escape even worse oppression back home.

Indo-Caribbeans indentured workers were sometimes called Coolies. Coolie comes from the Tamil word which means “wages”. However, in this region and context, Coolie is considered a derogatory slur.

The Indian indenture system was finally banned in 1917. Sadly, this was motivated more by declining profitability than humanitarian concerns. On a more positive note, descendants of Indian origin continue to thrive in countries like Guyana. An estimated 2.5 million people in the Caribbean are of Indian origin. Many have ethnically blended with migrants from other parts of the world, creating their own unique culture.


The theme of colonialism in Suchitra Mattai’s sugar bound:

photo of Suchitra Mattai 

As a descendant of indentured servants, much of Suchitra’s work in sugar bound explores the legacy of colonialism and its effects which can still be seen and felt today. Colonial decorative art and architecture reflected and replicated the tastes of the colonizers’ home counties and became ubiquitous across former colonies around the world. These buildings and objects are an enduring reminder of colonization today as colonial furniture, textiles and decor are still sought by collectors and many colonial buildings still stand across the Caribbean despite their ugly history.

Suchitra often reclaims these cultural artifacts – colonial furniture, prints and textiles – to create work that invests these objects with new meaning that is both familiar but new. In Skin, flasks of sugar represent the economic force that drove migration to Guyana and vintage encyclopedias represent the hegemonic historical narrative. Together, they challenge our perceptions of color and emphasize the significant role of sugar in the colonial narrative. In Sugar water, colonial furniture is upended to suggest feelings of displacement, discomfort and dislocation. In both of these works, viewers are invited to consider the experience of the immigrant, the nomad, the bonded laborer and the slave instead of the colonizer.



sugar bound is on view at CVA from August 30 through November 3. The gallery is open 5 days a week and admission is always free. Check out our exhibition page to plan your visit.