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Sugar-Based Graffiti That Confronts the Legacy of Slavery

These cake-frosting murals may look sweet, but their message is bitter. Also, beware of wasps!

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Shelley Miller

Let's get the obvious question about this sugar-based graffiti out of the way: Has anybody ever tried to eat it?

Yup. "In Brazil, I've seen people break pieces off and taste it," e-mails artist Shelley Miller from her Montreal base. Her fellow Canadians have proved less tempted to lick the artworks, but often ask her if it's tasty. "They're very visceral and emit a strong, sweet smell," she says. (The murals, not the Canadians.)

Miller has been making wall paintings from piped frosting since 2001; more recently, she's experimented with pieces that use hardened sugar tiles. For the piped graffiti, she employs a recipe for Royal Icing, otherwise known as the glue that cements gingerbread houses. The saccharine goo is made with "meringue powder, water, and powdered sugar," Miller says. "It dries really hard, almost like plaster."

The artist hasn't been fooling around with frosting for more than a decade to prep for Ace of Cakes. The art contains a subtext that's as bitter as gall: She wants us to remember the era when European powers enslaved a huge chunk of Africa to sustain their precious New World sugar plantations. During a 300-year span that began in the 16th century, "white gold" became so treasured that it accounted for a third of Europe's whole economy; more than 10 million African slaves made the horrific "Middle Passage" to the Americas to help feed the beast.

It's a little twisted making art that combines what we crave with what we deplore (now). But it's effective, and pretty on a surface level. There's one problem, however: The wasps. In the "Cargo" project pictured below, which went up in Montreal in 2009, the swarm of stinging bugs got so bad that Montreal officials asked Miller to remove the sugar mural in the interest of public safety. "But it was at the end of its life anyway, so we appeased them," she says.

First, though, have a look at "Stained," a frosting piece Miller installed last year intentionally near the harbor of Victoria. She writes: "The ornate design of the mural is a direct reference to the prevalence of ornate Victorian architecture in the area, the legacy of British influence that is the namesake of this city. As the title indicates, the central imagery became stained from rainfall, alluding to sugar's stained historical links to slavery."

And here's Cargo, whose sugary panels mimic colonial Portugal's traditional blue azulejo ceramics. "The image depicted speaks of the history of sugar, linking the port of Montreal into the global network of sugars history and the slave trade that supported this industry," she writes. "The image links source and destination for all of the 'cargo' related to this history, both sugar barrels and human cargo that were carried across the oceans."

Miller allowed the scene to wash away in sweet streams, a process of disintegration that created a toothsome ghost port:

Miller's caption for the below photo: "Why you shouldn’t store hammers on shelves next to fragile sugar tiles…."

Photos courtesy of the Shelley Miller Studio.

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