Art

Considering Chocolate’s Colonial History

Installation view of Minerva Cuervas's 'Feast and Famine' at Kurimanzutto (all photos by the author)
Installation view of Minerva Cuevas’s ‘Feast and Famine’ at Kurimanzutto (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

MEXICO CITY — Chocolate is very versatile. It can be sour or sweet. It can be filled with nuts, fruits, salt, chili, or even bacon. It can be infused with teas, herbs, and zest. It can also be imbued with a rich range of difficult themes, including the history of European colonialism and enduring systems of capitalist exploitation. These are the foremost subjects that Minerva Cuevas addresses in her chocolaty exhibition at Kurimanzutto, Feast and Famine. The show includes prints made using cocoa powder, chocolate sculptures cast in the shape of human ears, found objects and artifacts partially coated in chocolate, and mass-produced chocolate foods modified to underline the substance’s charged past and present. At the center of the gallery, a carefully calibrated machine drips chocolate onto a pile on the floor at intervals of 3.6 seconds — the rate at which someone in the world dies of starvation. Would you like some chocolate-covered anti-capitalism?

Detail of Minerva Cuevas, "Famine" (2015)
Detail of Minerva Cuevas, “Famine” (2015), in the foreground (click to enlarge)

The exhibition grew out of Cuevas’s residency at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, whose former director Clémentine Deliss made the examination and recontextualization of its collection of colonial objects a central part of its programming. The objects in Feast and Famine draw connections between the history of the cocoa trade, European colonialism in Latin America, and ways that the region continues to be exploited by the West, particularly through the oil and chocolate industries.

Cannibalism is an especially poignant subject for Cuevas, both in the way it was used to justify the “civilization” of populations in the Americas by European colonizers, and in the way it describes contemporary cycles of production and consumption in Mexico — for instance, most of the country’s cocoa is exported to Europe for high-end chocolate production, while the lion’s share of the chocolate sold in Mexico is made with cheaper cocoa imported from Africa. As a corrective to the prevalent and racist practice of portraying non-Europeans as cannibals, the centerpiece of Cuevas’s exhibition is an enormous painting of a wrapped Hershey’s milk chocolate bar, its middle torn open to expose a rendering of a historical bas-relief of a scene in which Europeans devour each other. Cannibals, like chocolate bars, come in many different varieties.

The show at times feels like it’s taking on too much, particularly when that other dark, gooey substance driving so many neocolonial conflicts — oil — is introduced, or when Cuevas highlights the role that the Western press played in selling US and European colonial enterprises to the masses. A large painted metal panel reconfiguring the logo of Time Magazine to spell “EVIL,” for instance, feels overly literal and pointlessly enormous. However, more intimate, Haim Steinbach–esque shelf installations incorporating a found article titled “A Chat with an African Cannibal” from an 1893 issue of the British magazine The Sketch, or a vintage Shell advertisement boasting of the many wartime uses of the company’s products, help to draw the lines between vast, historic, and enduring networks of capital and control. Ultimately, the choice of chocolate as the exhibition’s foremost theme and its unifying aesthetic helps to focus all these related yet disparate ideas. And it helps to make the extremely bitter issues Cuevas is raising palatable.

Minerva Cuervas, "A chat with a cannibal" (2015), graphic and found objects
Minerva Cuevas, “A chat with a cannibal” (2015), graphic and found objects (click to enlarge)
Minerva Cuervas, "Pleasure Island" (2015), graphic and found objects
Minerva Cuevas, “Pleasure Island” (2015), graphic and found objects (click to enlarge)
Minerva Cuervas, "Bittersweet - Hershey's" (2015), acrylic on canvas
Minerva Cuevas, “Bittersweet – Hershey’s” (2015), acrylic on canvas (click to enlarge)
Installation view of Minerva Cuervas's 'Feast and Famine' with "Like a Tzompantli" (2015), chocolate ears in showcase and polycarbonate molds, in the foreground
Installation view of Minerva Cuevas’s ‘Feast and Famine’ with “Like a Tzompantli” (2015), chocolate ears in showcase and polycarbonate molds, in the foreground
Installation view of Minerva Cuervas's 'Feast and Famine' with "To Rebel" (2015), acrylic on Toblerone cardboard case, in the foreground
Installation view of Minerva Cuevas’s ‘Feast and Famine’ with “To Rebel” (2015), acrylic on Toblerone cardboard case, in the foreground
Installation view of Minerva Cuervas's 'Feast and Famine' with "Feast" (2015) in the foreground
Installation view of Minerva Cuevas’s ‘Feast and Famine’ with “Feast” (2015) in the foreground

Feast and Famine by Minerva Cuevas continues at Kurimanzutto (Gobernador Rafael Rebollar 94, San Miguel Chapultepec, Mexico City) through October 24.

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