Tao Leigh Goffe and Andrea Chung consider art’s ability to critique traditional histories and envision otherwise futures.
There is a choreography of mothering between Black women and Chinese women dating back to the late nineteenth century. Lockstep movements across continents, women nurtured each other’s children born to the same Chinese fathers from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. While they never met, the women formed an unwritten transoceanic history of surrogacies and parenting between places like Cuba and China.
Does the colonial archive have the capacity to hold historical intimacies such as these? As a researcher, I write about a century-and-a-half of labour and migration histories that connect China, Hong Kong, and India to the Caribbean and Latin America. This elusive archive of the British, Dutch, and Spanish Empires has necessarily drawn me to artwork invested in futurist worlding—not least because of the gritty texture of a granular approach several contemporary artists are taking to history. Feminist and non-binary genealogies also form the substance of a meta-history I am investigating through art and research.
The most visceral critiques of colonial plantations are emerging in contemporary art, rather than in the pages of history books. There is an immediacy of visual language in conversation with deep archival historical work. Challenging how traditional histories that have long excluded and subsumed women, femmes, and non-binary people by design, many emerging and mid-career artists are offering alternate futures, universes, and genealogies in sculpture, filmmaking, and photography. Multimedia work has the multisensorial potential to unravel fixed assumptions, including the chronological progression of time. Many contemporary artists are experimenting with what I identify as the nonlinear temporality of the plantation. They form this critique to show how modern capitalism violently reordered time. Whether through sculpture, film, or painting, there is an urgent engagement by many contemporary artists with the materiality of plantation commodities as a commentary on the meaning of chattel.
Artists of African and Asian heritage descended from those who laboured on plantations are interrogating a cultural inheritance beyond brutal labour regimes of racial slavery and indenture. Textural elements form an archive of forgotten gestures that index Afro-Asian cultural memory in the Americas. Sculpting time, artists are prompting audiences to reconsider convenient histories written in the service of colonialism. Artists are calling attention to historiography and the processes of how these histories have been written based on the archives that are preserved.
Defying art’s history as a colonial tool of preserving the visages of aristocracy and those who have historically sat for portraits, artists are disputing who should be framed by history. As statues chiselled as monuments to conquest come crashing down, the bronze busts made in the image of conquerors must be melted down and remoulded. In doing so, contemporary African and Asian diasporic artists are evoking the politics of fungibility that ordered the gendered labour dynamics on the plantations of the Americas. While a brutal economy attempted to transform human flesh into chattel, art can be a way to make fungible an aesthetics of feminist possibility and non-binary, non-biological futurity based on extending kinship.
The Politics of Sugar: Revisiting Sugarwork
Several artists have turned to the politics of sugar as a pliable and perishable medium, forming a commentary on the commodities of colonialism. In the world and work of Andrea Chung, an artist who I have come to collaborate with over the years, sugar forms a vital and alternate genealogy of plantation history.
Sugar is a preservative. To candy is to slow the passage of time, extending shelf life. Curing inhibits microbial activity because sugar can preserve the colour, texture, and flavour of certain foods. While intergenerational pain and trauma are part of our family histories of the plantation, Chung homes in on archives of care present in the labour sugar required. She centres networks of how women have supported one another. I first wrote about her work in connection to the process and medium of sugar, also present in the work of Cuban American artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons in 2019.1
Andrea puts it poetically when she describes sugar as a genealogy. She says, “I use sugar because sugar changed the face of the Caribbean…My last name is Chung because of sugar.”2 Born to parents who migrated to the US, a mother from Trinidad and a father from Jamaica, in both of her family lines African and Chinese heritage inform her labour-intensive creative practice. Whether it is weaving baskets, mashing sugarcane stalks to make pulp for paper, or intricate African beading techniques, Andrea’s crafting is meticulous, monotonous, and laborious. The choreography of repetition with her hands forms a muscle memory that is also a ritual, with her hands anything but idle as she considers the movements of her Caribbean grandmothers’ hands. Both Chung and Campos-Pons present critiques of the political economy of the plantation by staging Afro-Asian histories in the Caribbean through sugar’s malleability.
This method of moulding drew me to write about Chung and Campos-Pons’ work in the essay “Sugarwork: The Gastropoetics of Afro-Asia After the Plantation,” for the peer-reviewed journal Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas. Since its publication, new lives of collaboration and interpretation have sprouted with public intellectual and artistic engagements beyond paywalls or university campuses. I highlighted Andrea’s phrase, “My last name is Chung because of sugar,” when invited to give last year’s annual Dame Nita Barrow lecture at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. Considering the history of sugar and slavery in Barbados, the Gender Studies professors knew exactly what Chung meant about Caribbean genealogies. We discussed feminist labour in the kitchen and the recipes we are losing and retaining.
Disrupting commonwealth genealogies, Barbados is leading the way for the horizon of twenty-first-century political sovereignty, with women’s leadership in particular setting an anticolonial model for the world. Barbados’s Prime Minister Mia Mottley has even taken a defiant stance on the world political stage, formally breaking from Britain in 2020.3 The Mother Country and the metropole must be fully disowned for emancipation to begin to be more than a formal act. While some celebrated Elizabeth Windsor’s Jubilee in 2022, other islands were talking amongst themselves to negotiate new political and thus economic and climate futures of potential sovereignty. Elizabeth’s death has led to new interrogations of the rule of monarchy. Global mourning is uneven across the commonwealth because so much grief about colonial crimes are unprocessed. Such pertinent questions connect the island trade routes of Hong Kong and Jamaica, both former British colonies.
Afro-Asian Maternal Inheritances: Kingston and Kowloon
Over the past six years, I have travelled to Kingston and Kowloon, crossing the border to Shenzhen in search of traces of these inheritances. I found my grandfather’s house in the New Territories where he was raised by his Chinese stepmother when he arrived from Jamaica in 1934.4 Born to a Black mother and Chinese father, my maternal grandfather was not the only Black child to arrive in Hong Kong during this period. Labour migration shaped the landscape of South China and Hong Kong, shifting the shape of families. As the historian Madeline Hsu writes in Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home, pockets of South China became matriarchal. Some households became led by women left behind while husbands sought business ventures in the Americas. Of this history of remittances in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was an affective terrain that shaped home villages and gender dynamics. It even affected the built environment of South China architecture as money flowing in from abroad led to new constructions. What I add to this little-known global history is that sometimes these wives also became the guardians to children born to other women in the Americas, their husband’s other wives or common law partners.
This parentage makes the timeline of Afro-Asian inheritance a complicated maternal question between Hong Kong and Jamaica. In my mitochondrial DNA, from my mother’s, mother’s, mother’s mother, I wonder what sort of maternal imprinting I have inherited from stepmothers and absent mothers, those forced to give up their children for whatever reason. To me this is part of the metabolism of the plantation and what remains undigested by history. Sugar or glucose is transmitted from the placenta in the womb, and I wonder what sort of histories we digest from our ancestors that we were not told about directly. Andrea and I decided to collaborate because we realised we were asking the same questions of the British colonial archive, ones that required West African and South Chinese knowledge practices. Our questions require understanding that Amerindian knowledge in the Caribbean is a matter of survivance and futurity. Our questions centre Afro-Indigenous braided modernities that structure ecology and technology in the hemisphere. We wonder which West African matrilineal traditions we have inherited in the present.
We are descended from women who took shifts raising one another’s children and tending one another’s gardens. What are the West African ways of knowing and doing business that inform our present? Andrea and I both meditate on what it took for women to invent choice out of choicelessness.
Disputing Traditional Genealogies
There are beautiful Chinese poems that contain generations formed through the characters of ancestors’ names. In Chinese intergenerational poems, women are absent. Excluded from familial memory, we are invested in those who do not get preserved in the poem or the jiapu (the multigenerational family record maintained by a Chinese clan that dates back thousands of years). We embrace expansive and inclusive femme and feminist Hakka genealogies in which sugar forms a jiapu.
I am interested in the preservation work that women often perform in family kitchens, even though in Hakka tradition it is the men who cook. Andrea and I have been exploring our Hakka and West African heritage to discover which gender norms are subverted and inverted in everyday life. In Hakka agricultural life, people of all genders farmed. Hakka women’s feet were not bound for this reason, and so the maternal ancestral relationship to the land, labour, and being unbound is deep. Traditions and knowledge can be passed on instead of down once we embrace horizontal and non-biological familial intimacies. Rejecting binary or vertical constructs of family trees, which are often oppressive, we are hosting an ongoing series of conversations on challenging family fictions.
Author Patricia Powell gifts her readers powerful and tragic characters that disrupt binary genealogies in her 1998 novel The Pagoda. The book is paramount in its impact and the world it constructs of China in the nineteenth-century Caribbean. For this reason, we invited Patricia Powell to speak with us in an event we organised called “Shop Talk” in 2021. The event was co-sponsored in a partnership Andrea arranged with the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Connecticut—connecting West Coast and East Coast Black and Asian diasporas. Andrea and I felt fortunate to connect with Patricia about craft and process. Though Andrea and I had only recently met in 2020, we shared how the book had shaped us independently for years, in lieu of official Caribbean Chinese histories in textbooks.
Powell’s protagonist in The Pagoda, Mr Lowe, is a figure of transition. Many of my students interpreted him as being non-binary before it became common in the classroom to introduce oneself with one’s pronouns on the first day of class. A stowaway from China to Jamaica in the 1860s, Lowe provides a way for students to explore the inclusive and fluid grammar of “they.” For me and Andrea, Lowe provides a way to interrogate Afro-Chinese genealogies in the Caribbean. In a society in transition, post-emancipation Jamaica, this character’s tale of gender passing, covering, and crossdressing is one of Afro-Asian femme and non-binary genealogies.
The circuits of labour in the Caribbean diaspora are also deeply gendered. Nurses, nannies, mammies, and women forced to be wet nurses. Black people’s bodies farmed out as surrogate mothers, a type of labour extended from the Caribbean plantation is not new. Where I live, New York City, West Indian women’s labour is recruited and exploited because it is comparatively inexpensive. There is an underground market that functions in broad daylight of women paid under the table, paid to care. They are given minimal wages to care for infants and geriatric patients. The 2019 play Marys Seacole by Jackie Sibblies Drury makes a poignant critique about feminised labour of Afro-Caribbean women, giving us feminist genealogies of science and herbalism. She frames this question with the history of the famous Jamaican nurse who served for the British in the Crimean War, Marys Seacole.
In our “Shop Talk” event, Andrea, Patricia, and I talked about inheriting these labours, but also inheriting our mothers’ and grandmothers’ gardens. We discussed which roots would have been a healing potion for a character like Lowe suffering intergenerational trauma. We discussed herbal knowledge and recipes as medicine, and made pikliz together, with a recipe borrowed from Andrea’s friend Tara, who is of Haitian descent. Haitian fermentation techniques with cabbage and vinegar mirror those of Asian kitchens. When I taught my class “Afro-Asia: Food, Feminism, Futurism” at Cornell University, students helped me see these connected recipes as a genealogy. Inspired by the books on our syllabus—including The Pagoda, And China Has Hands, and Dark Princess—they wrote a recipe for Kimchi Pikliz for our speculative Afro-Asia Cookbook, crafted collaboratively.
Andrea texted me once asking if I had a Chinese name. A little puzzled because, of course, my first name Tao is Chinese, I said, “yes.” But we were picking up on a conversation from an episode of my podcast Get Free, in which we discussed how neither of us looks like what people expect when they see our names. I titled it “Ask a Chinese Question, Get a Black Answer.” Andrea’s last name being Chinese, and my first name being Chinese, elicits different responses for two Black women living in the United States. Uber drivers question how I could be Tao in disbelief. Her takeaway order for Chung at Chinese restaurants is reviewed with extra scrutiny when she arrives to pick it up.
We decided to call our commitment to collaborative creative practice Too Facety, which has been a hybrid process of virtual and in-person interactions, converging and diverging in different geographies and moments—in kitchens, classrooms, museums, and art studios. The name Too Facety is our form of embracing the role of the wayward daughter, with histories of the wayward both loud and gendered, as Saidiya Hartman shows us in the genealogies she constructs in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.
Andrea and I like the term “facety” because it does not quite translate to English. In Caribbean vernacular speech, it’s used to admonish (usually a child of rude, obstinate behaviour). The opposite of a prodigal son, we think of Patricia Powell’s character Lowe, whose given name was Lau A-yin, as one of these wayward daughters. When the name is used in the book, it represents Lowe’s former identity as a young fugitive girl escaping an arranged marriage to a much older man in Guangdong. Stepping onto the gangplank bound for Jamaica, Lau A-yin has a new naming ceremony of sorts too. She becomes anglicised and is forced to take on a male identity as Mr Lowe.
The Placental Politics of Surrogacy
In an ongoing video installation series Talk is Cheap, I am experimenting with positioning the urn as a womb as a pickling jar. I think about these gendered genealogies and how characters like Lowe represent a discontinuity or gap in the family tree. Lowe’s uterus holds the future for China in the Caribbean. In the design of various Chinese fermentation vessels, I am intrigued by how much of gastronomy is scientific and technological knowledge. In my kitchen in New York City, for example, I have been experimenting with Hakka fermenting techniques for making haam choy from mustard greens. Brewing kombucha has also kept me occupied. Filming a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) in slow motion with a macro lens, I have been carefully tending to this microorganism. The stringy tendrils of the culture mirror what I imagine to be the interior micro-movements of the uterine lining suspended in amniotic fluid.
For me, afterbirth is a potent symbol of reckoning with what follows or what attends colonial modernity, what makes it possible. The placental politics of surrogacy inform my research and creative practice. In Talk is Cheap, the jar becomes a microcosm of a laboratory, hermetically sealed (in the jar that I am using, water, or the pickling liquid, forms a perfect vacuum airtight seal). Islands are laboratories too. People were rendered as the test subjects of colonial desires across the Caribbean archipelago. Specimens were dissected and put on display in jars in metropolitan museums.
I placed a passport photograph of my mother’s aunt who was born to a Black mother and Chinese father in the pickling jar. A Black picture bride, she left Hong Kong as a teenager to be married to a Chinese Indonesian man in Suriname. Alongside Jamaican scotch bonnet peppers, allspice, and Sichuan peppercorns, I place my grand aunt’s image with mustard greens to consider how women are both preserved and not in the family tree.
How is blackness preserved or not in Chinese diasporic family trees? The Venus Hottentot and Afong Moy form part of this Afro-Asian genealogy of women exploited, abused, and put on display for European consumption. We were not expected to have the capacity to be artists displaying our own artwork in museums or to dictate the terms of our own world tours. We were expected to be displayed, exhibited, and paraded. Chinoiserie dioramas and the glass of the museum display case formed prisons for women of colour that our art practice is devoted to disrupting.
Histories and Futures of Reproductive Justice
While I look to Black picture brides sailing from Hong Kong to South America, Andrea focuses on midwives. Casting moulds of the hands of midwives, she considers what was bestowed upon her by her grandmothers, one of whom was a midwife in Trinidad and Tobago. In her collage series Midwives, Chung presents Black women adorned with golden uteruses as crowns. She says,
I’m interested in exploring the ways in which colonialism has impacted the land and our bodies. I also want the viewer to understand the ramifications of colonialism and not see it as something that happened in the past and as something that has resolved itself to where we are now. Colonialism has never ended, it has only evolved. I hope that people can take the themes of the work and see how they apply to our current fractured political climate.
With secret scientific and medical knowledge of which herbs and flowers are abortifacients, midwives were the gynaecological experts of the plantation. Andrea, Patricia, and I discussed these tinctures as ancient knowledge derived from West African matrilineal traditions of cultivation. In her twenty-year career, Andrea has long considered motherhood from multiple angles. In one of her latest gallery shows, We Was Girls Together, Chung draws inspiration from women’s relationships to one another in Toni Morrison’s Sula; and as a mother herself, Andrea’s ten-year-old son sometimes features in her cyanotype work.
In “Sugarwork,” I posited that sugar is not simply a commodity, but an inheritance. The intra-uterine work of gestation is not incidental; it is part of the metabolic cycle of the plantation. In this contemporary moment of crisis with Roe v. Wade being overturned in the United States, we grapple with the urgency of how the work of labouring is in no way passive. Black women have long understood this and advocated for reproductive rights. We know how the ruling will disproportionately impact Black people, with Black maternal mortality rates in the United States telling a damning truth about race, gender, and premature death. These reproductive questions are urgent for Black people in the Caribbean too. Another fellow traveller and feminist collaborator, Edna Bonhomme, and I are pursuing research on Black Caribbean reproductive technologies and abortion rights for this reason.
Black feminists have established a long tradition of written histories of reproductive justice and futures for all people with uteruses. It is vital to look beyond the normative gendered categories of who has traditionally been imagined to be a mother or a woman. In Powell’s novel, Mr Lowe gives birth after the trauma of being raped as a Chinese stowaway crossing the Atlantic in the 1860s. In Jamaica, he comes to raise his daughter as a father instead of as a mother, in a forced performance by the person who raped him. While the plot is complicated and layered, so are the gaps in the genealogy of the plantation.
If racial slavery was a placental abruption that led to discontinuities in the family tree, Andrea and I are also invested in the feminist genealogy of Asian indenture as an institution that remains unknown to most people. When European nations sought to replace enslaved African labour in the nineteenth century with Asian labour through the institution of racial indenture, they often used the same ships and barracks. Though Asian labourers supposedly signed contracts, the conditions were brutal. Temporary contracts, indentures, were not heritable to children. This is a defining difference that distinguishes the two labour systems, and Black and Asian histories in the Caribbean and Latin America. The status of chattel as being born from a Black womb was determined by the edict partus sequitur ventrem—that which is brought forth follows the womb.
Afro-Asian Coalition Building and Future Memory
In staging other events such as “At the Table: Sugarwork: Afro-Asian Foodways Art and Foodways,” hosted by the Asian Art Museum and the Smithsonian affiliate Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), both in San Francisco, we are bringing cultural institutions into conversation that have never considered their shared lineages. As museums rehang and interrogate their collections and holdings, in complicity with the profits of enslavement and colonialism, these historical audits are necessary. Who better than artists and scholars to lead the path in forming feminist finding aids and crafting new metadata?
To facilitate such accountability, I began the organisation the Afro-Asia Group in 2019 at Cornell University to stage conversations and artistic activations about coalition building. Afro-Asia Group has had to evolve since the pandemic, but we have adapted, embracing co-sponsorship and what the virtual can offer for an initiative with an inherently global focus.5
The difference between Asian Studies and Black Studies is profound. Area Studies is a colonial project; meanwhile Black study is the ongoing work of learning, liberation, and affirming Black joy and survival. Our creative practice as Too Facety is a deeply participatory call-and-response. It centres conversation, making, doing, cooking, and process as opposed to deliverables and outputs. There is much work and divestment necessary before museums can begin to approach a horizon of decolonisation. The first steps though must be accountability and equity.
At the Asian Pacific American Institute (A/P/A) at New York University, the Afro-Asia Group held an event highlighting the exciting new work of Professor Robyn Spencer on Black women, organising, and periodical readership during the Korean War. Working with current and former members of the Afro-Asia Group Grad Board (Arianna James, Zifeng Liu, Sheree Chen, and Aree Worawongwasu), I plan virtual events and initiatives that centre Afro-Asian coalition building.
Andrea and I are not the only people of African and Asian heritage being led on this path to reckon with how colonial history is produced. I mentioned María Magdalena Campos-Pons earlier in this essay, and in addition there are artists such as Saya Woolfalk, Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, Simone Leigh, and Carmen LoBue, who are of African and Asian heritage doing this sort of work creating alternate histories and futures influenced by the temporality of the plantation. At times some of these artists connect Black and Asian speculative worlds, drawing on their heritage, offering a vision of what some might call a memory of the future. What does it mean to remember the future? With differing media each artist approaches colonial historiography creating new universes and future artefacts that reference multiple pasts and genealogies. Some directly reference Asia and Asian labour histories, others do not.
Sugar—to come back to what drew me to Andrea’s art three years ago—is Andrea’s visual language for preserving quotidian and revolutionary acts. Sugar rotted teeth and was a geopolitical force. Canada was almost traded by the French with the British for Guadeloupe because of sugarcane production, and the Dutch traded Suriname for New York City to the British for sugar in the 1667 Treaty of Breda.
Sugar preserves, but it also scars. Phantom limbs of colonial muscle memory feel the lingering pain of what was amputated in the name of sugar, our genealogies. Choosing estrangement, ultimately then, can be an act of self-preservation. Too Facety is our attempt to sit with what has been withheld as an opportunity. Experimenting with the stickiness of time in the kitchen, sugar’s alchemy has taught me as much about gastronomy as philosophy. If historiography is a method of outlining the contours of the past, I have learned from Andrea that art is a method for sculpting the shape and ethics of a future we actually want to inherit.
Tao Leigh Goffe is an assistant professor of literary theory and cultural history. She has a joint appointment between the Department of Africana Studies and Program in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University. She is also a writer and a DJ specialising in the narratives that emerge from histories of imperialism, migration, and globalisation. Her book After Eden, a history of climate crisis and race, will be published in 2024 (Doubleday, Hamish Hamilton).
Andrea Chung is an American artist born in Newark, NJ, who currently lives and works in San Diego. Often ephemeral in nature, her work regularly incorporates themes related to the reclamation of feminine power, dark humor, the distortion of seduction and beauty as vehicles for cultural criticism, and the rejection of a whitewashed history.
1. Tao Leigh Goffe, “Sugarwork: The Gastropoetics of Afro-Asia After the Plantation,” Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas 5, issue 1–2 (April 2019): 31–56.
2. Andrea Chung, “The Mess You Made,” published by Hawthorn Contemporary on October 26, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVLQoh30pAY
3. “Barbados to Remove Queen Elizabeth as Head of State,”BBC, September 16, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-54174794
4. Gaia Goffe, “How a Chinese-Jamaican’s family history quest led her to Hong Kong,” South China Morning Post, July 28, 2016, https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/long-reads/article/1996068/how-chinese-jamaicans-family-history-quest-led
5. To extend this work I and two other professors, Yomaira C. Figueroa-Vasquez and Jessica Marie Johnson, are the recipients of a Mellon Foundation grant for $2 million dollars on race, feminist technologies, and coalition building with community partners.