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In February, FLOTUS Jill Biden festooned the White House’s North Lawn with giant Valentine’s Day hearts in pink, white, and red, reminiscent of candy hearts but plastered instead with words like “unity,” “family,” and “compassion.” A fleshy-pink plea for unity is, strictly speaking, conservative. It is the sugary coating that, for liberals and the like, posits Biden’s inauguration as a sweet promise and distracts them from the astringent core of the candy heart: what is unity without equality? (On the other side of the dystopic coin, no different in its decadent flaunting of U.S. imperialism, is former FLOTUS Melania Trump’s militant Christmas decorations: placenta-red trees lining an East Wing hallway of the White House).
Since February, I have been wondering whether this image of candy hearts crystallizes my pre-pandemic idea that we most likely live in a type of Candyland. I am alluding to the race to reach the finish: in this case, the White House, with the pandemic instigating a particle accelerator-like dash toward autocratic technocracy and heightened U.S. imperialism, obfuscated by bittersweet pleas for safety. The proletariat, in turn, are merely pawns in an accelerated race that ends in the merging of corporate and state power. The aestheticizing disguise of the White House via FLOTUS’ décor suggests that, as philosopher Walter Benjamin forewarned: “the logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.”1
The primary ingredient in both Biden’s décor and the child’s board game, candy—or sugar—is also inherently a seminal capitalist, colonial project with its roots in the Caribbean (hence its designation as the “sugar revolution”).2 As a highly sought-after monoculture, 17th- and 18th-century sugar production singlehandedly expedited the plantation complex, the Atlantic slave trade, white colonization, and the commerce industry. I thought of this as I strolled through the quiet corridors of Sula Bermúdez-Silverman’s lane of sugary architecture at the California African American Museum (CAAM). The dimly lit gallery of Neither Fish, Flesh, nor Fowl, Sula’s first solo museum exhibition in Los Angeles, was illuminated by the candy-pink glow of 10 life-size dollhouses—one made from glass, and nine cast in sugar from her childhood dollhouse. However, unlike the deceptive opacity of the festive blending of politic and aesthetic spearheaded by the aforementioned first ladies, Bermúdez-Silverman’s candied dollhouses have a viscous translucency to them. Hardened simple syrup radiates a bioluminescent glow, making these houses look like organisms of the deep sea. Bermúdez-Silverman, who is of Afro-Puerto Rican and Jewish descent, uses sugar as both a nod to her ancestors who worked on sugarcane plantations in Puerto Rico and the larger legacy of sugar as a major commodity of early colonialist capitalism in the Caribbean economy. Sugary façades have oft been utilized as ornaments of obfuscation, concealment, or political appeasement (like Biden, adorning hard architectures of power with a saccharine sweetness), but Bermúdez-Silverman uses sugar to expose the very architecture of obfuscation itself by allowing us to peer inside the hollow, translucent center of her sugary façades. Her use of sugar and light marry to become literal and metaphorical lighthouses, illuminating the otherwise invisible architectural nexus of neocolonialism, capitalist cultural exchange, and the hyper-whiteness of popular culture.
In the year since her show opened at CAAM, Bermúdez-Silverman has continued to expand upon her investigation of sugar and illumination. In her most recent show, Sighs and Leers and Crocodile Tears at Murmurs, the transparency of sugar is once again made visible by a luminosity from underneath. In Turning Heel (2021), two sugar-cast, reptilian monster hands extend from a mound of Himalayan salt, balancing a glass praying mantis between their claws. In the smaller, darkened gallery space, the Porthole series (2021) consists of ghostly sugar or resin dollhouse windows that serve as miniature frames cradling insects, found objects, and illuminated, celluloid tableaus embedded in the sugar panes, including one of Michael Jackson metamorphosizing into the undead in the music video for “Thriller.” As a whole, the exhibition interweaves the materiality of sugar with its prevalence in Haitian and Caribbean plantations and the forgotten folkloric origin story of the zombie.
The legend of the zombie finds its roots in Haitian Vodou when enslaved workers were brought from West Africa to sugar plantations in French-occupied Haiti. Not dissimilar to the undead liminality of the zombie, the enslaved worker exists in a similar alive-but-dead state. Jamaican-American sociologist Orlando Patterson takes this further, theorizing that the enslaved Black person becomes culturally entrapped in “social death” because he has no “socially recognized existence outside of his master.”3 The folkloric zombie, therefore, is not a bloodthirsty, monstrous predator—but rather, according to cultural critics, an allegorical figure of enslavement. In Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s essay “Undead (A Zombie Oriented Ontology),” he notes that “the zombie is a beast of burden that his master exploits without mercy, making him work in the fields… whipping him freely and feeding him on meager, tasteless food.”4 The devil was also said to abhor salt. Salt, thus, was considered an antidote, as even a grain was said to reanimate the zombie and potentially give it the strength to kill its master.5 Salt—as taste, as sensorial pleasure, as mineral sustenance—is then also a vehicle for Black joy and pleasure. Given the state’s denial of pleasure for oppressed peoples, Black joy has prevailed as a survival strategy of harm reduction and liberation.
With the Vodou origins of the zombie in mind, the role of pink salt throughout Bermúdez-Silverman’s Murmurs exhibition takes on a greater significance. The pink salt not only appears as finely ground, fertile sand from which discombobulated and protesting limbs yearn upwards and outwards, but also as Himalayan salt bricks that form three illuminated substrates to uphold three new iterations of the cast dollhouse—one in sugar, one in glass, and one in coarse Himalayan salt. In particular, the salt house, Repository III: Resurrector (2021), intimates a futurity for rebirth and reclamation. Unlike the sugar or glass houses, which are conventionally rectangular and sit upon rectangular, salt bases, both the house itself, and the base of Resurrector are triangular: a geometric, architectural, and symbolic base of strength, ascension, and culmination. Where the sugar house has no exterior staircase and the glass house only a miniature, glass one that falls short of reaching the threshold, the salt house includes an illuminated salt-brick staircase that leads to its front door. It is perhaps from this staircase that the undead can ascend into the open salt house, which, void of any roof, is ripe for the possibility of resuscitation.
In considering Haiti’s ancestry of vanguardism as the first and last nation to undergo a successful slave revolution, zombification parallels colonization in its re-enactment of master-slave dynamics. In its contemporary political landscape, the U.S. continues to inflict an imperial zombification upon Haiti through its occupation and refusal to recognize Haiti’s democracy and eternal debt bondage (undeadness). In reconnecting the zombie to its Haitian origins through sugar and salt, Bermúdez-Silverman motions toward a futurity of undoing undeadness: the liberation of the zombie, the liberation of the enslaved, and the liberation of the (neo)colonial, racialized subject and nation.
The largest work in the Murmurs show, Carrefour Pietá / Be My Victim (2021), is a knitted, six-paneled figurative tapestry that combines two images: a film still from the Hollywood zombie B-film I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and a reinterpretation of Michelangelo’s Pietá (1498–99) featuring a Black Jesus. Bermúdez-Silverman weaves together these almost-mirror images in a snake-like fashion, with each black and light green panel of the tapestry alternating between the two images. The result is a sense of both fragmentation and extension—Carrefour, the silent, imposing, zombie-like Black “native” from I Walked with a Zombie carries Jessica, the zombified white woman donning a virginal robe, while a white-shrouded Mother Mary contemplates her dead son’s limp Black body. I Walked with a Zombie is a classic example of early Hollywood “zombie women” films, in which the sexually desirable white heroine becomes tainted by an otherized monster, set amidst a backdrop of “tropical” exoticism (sometimes even a Haitian sugar plantation.)6 Carrefour Pietá makes a direct visual comparison between the quality of lifelessness of the Black Jesus and Jessica—two racialized, gendered tropes in North American pop culture that, when romantically entangled under fears of miscegenation, vilifies the Black man and victimizes the white woman. Here, the limp, lifeless bodies of both Jessica and Black Jesus are extended and fragmented, yet reassembled to juxtapose and complicate the whiteness and Blackness of each. Bermúdez-Silverman confronts the disturbing legacy of white women’s weaponization of victimhood (or shall we say, “Karen-hood”), revealing that Hollywood’s zombie is inseparable from a colonialist discourse that horrifically usurps history and identity, erasing and even reversing the roles of the victims. How is it that the white woman may escape zombification unscathed? The legacy of the North American zombie transposes the zombiehood of the enslaved Black victim to the virginal white colonizing “victim.” Perhaps then, in Carrefour Pietá, the ever-virginal, immaculate-conceiving Mother Mary repents.
Looming underneath the tapestry and bathed in a soft pink glow emanating from various sugar sculptures, the sea of fleshy pink salt—similar in hue to FLOTUS’ pink “kindness” heart— seems to paradoxically embody the white virgin just as it does its curative, antidotal properties. The white woman victim is safe and free to imbibe in the luxury of enjoying taste, pleasure, and antidote. For the Haitian zombie, the antidote is, tantalizingly, often just out of reach. The sea of pink, while a sea of potential antidote, is one not free from white oppression and persisting neocolonialism. It is from this sea that the Haitian zombie may arise.
While writing this essay, I spoke to Bermúdez-Silverman on the phone, and she asked me how cloudy the dollhouses at CAAM had looked during my recent visit. (CAAM was closed to the public for much of the pandemic, and as a result, it had been months since she had been able to visit her show.) She tells me that the sugar dollhouses are ephemeral: with time, the transparency of the sugar degrades, the sugar fogged by humidity. The transparency of architectures of white violence (that obscure the historical origins of minoritarian oppression) which Bermúdez-Silverman has labored to illuminate, therefore, is ephemeral: over time, she says, the houses most likely will disintegrate. I am left to wonder which will be first to completely disintegrate: architectures of hegemonic power or strategies of resistance, such as illumination and visibilization.
stephanie mei huang is an L.A.-based interdisciplinary artist. She sees slippery, chameleonic identity as a form of infiltration: a soft power reversal within hard architectures of power. She uses a diverse range of media and strategies, including film/video, writing, sculpture, and painting. Recently, she completed her MFA in Art at the California Institute of the Arts (2020).