Zenaéca Singh Paints a Bitter History With Sugar & Molasses

Words: Robyn Samuels | Photography: Zoë du Toit | Artwork images: Guns & Rain, Zenaéca Singh

Before the moment it’s planted, produced or procured, food tells a story. The sugar in your tea, the molasses in your syrup, and the hands that once cultivated the crops they’re made from – they all tell a story. Ahead of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, we shine the spotlight on artists who explore the connection between food and art. “To understand her sense of belonging and freedom,” visual artist, Zenaéca Singh, revisits the bitter history of indentured Indians – who were brought to South Africa to establish the sugar economy in 1860 – by painting and sculpting with sugar.

Zenaéca Singh in her studio, Michaelis School of Fine Art (UCT). | photographed by Zoë du Toit

Food x Art Focus – Zenaéca Singh

Plagued by famine, poverty and debt back home, the British colony ‘recruited’ and shipped Indian workers, with the promise of a better life and making an honest living – “this was not the case,” Singh reminds us. With nothing but the clothes on their backs and some seedlings in their pockets, approximately 152 184 Indians uprooted their families and travelled across the Indian Ocean to Durban (then Port-Natal). Despite the abolishment of slavery in 1834, the sugar plantation workers were abused, earned meagre wages and subjected to life-threatening conditions – a miscarriage of justice that persisted until 1911.

As a fourth-generation Indian born in South Africa and a born-free citizen, Singh honours this harrowing history and, subsequently, her ancestors through her artwork. Sculptures like High Tea, The Beginning, and Five Generations, portray the ‘Coolie Ships’, which transported indentured Indians to Kwa-Zulu Natal – a place her family now calls Home Sweet Home. Crystallised ships dissolved in a sea of sugar are cemented by resin – symbolic of the past, present and future impacts of indentureship. Image sequences inspired by family archives and state-held records depict indentured Indian workers; their silhouettes, saris, and marigold necklaces detailed in sugar and blackstrap molasses paint a picture of hope, even amidst hardship. We visit Singh’s studio at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, where she is currently pursuing her Master’s degree, to learn about her connection to this history, and her upcoming exhibition with Guns & Rain gallery at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair.

Sugar portraits | Images courtesy of artist, Zenaéca Singh, and Guns & Rain gallery.

Can you explain how the use of molasses and sugar in your art speaks to the history of indentureship in South Africa?

It is a history that is not well known and is riddled with misconceptions and contradictions. Indenture was seen as a form of free labour due to the introduction of contracts. This was done to protect workers from exploitation and slavery, which had been abolished in 1834. However, this was not the case, as workers were captured or misinformed about indenture and the dire working conditions – many suffered from hardships, abuse and fatalities.

Like many others, my ancestors had arrived in Kwa-Zulu Natal as indentured workers in search of a better life. I had to do a lot of research into this history to understand my own sense of belonging and freedom. In finding out about the violence of the indenture system and how it has been hidden in history, I then wanted to use my artistic practice to create awareness about this history. So, I started with using the same crop that was cultivated on these plantations – sugar.

I use sugar in a few ways. Firstly, crystallising it to create a form of glass; I then cast the ‘sugar glass’ into different objects that represented aspects of the history – like the ships that brought the workers to South Africa. In another way, I make paintings entirely out of sugar by creating a canvas out of a sugar paste, and then painting with molasses. I wanted to create paintings of family photos to portray the community and history more intimately, as there was much more to the lives of indentured workers despite the ongoing hardships. I’ve since been exploring other ways of using sugar.

 Finding Home (top); High Tea (bottom left), Zenaéca Singh in her studio (bottom right) | Artwork images courtesy of Zenaéca Singh and Guns & Rain gallery.

I think it’s also important to have a different way of looking at the history of indentureship – its history was written through the eyes of colonial administrators, as opposed to the workers and descendants.

The sugar in your sculptures are both liquid and crystallised. Do the altering states represent anything?

For me, it speaks to the sense of belonging for the Indian community in South Africa – with it being in a state of flux across generations. Indentureship was a form of cheap labour for the government to establish and develop its sugar industry. The state introduced a lot of repatriation programs to send workers and their descendants back to India, and also put forward laws that made settling down and building a home very difficult for the Indian community. This contrasts largely with me being a fourth-generation born in South Africa, as well as a born-free citizen.

Can you tell us about the process of using sugar paste and molasses on canvases? Are your fingers constantly sticky?

I knead together icing sugar, gum arabic [hardened sap] and rose water to create a paste. I then stretch out the paste into a thin sheet that I paint on with molasses. Fortunately, it’s not too sticky of a process, but it is a bit labour-intensive!

What role does research play in your art, and how do you ensure accuracy while allowing for creative interpretation?

My research and making go hand-in-hand, as both processes inform each other. At first, when I wanted to create awareness about the history and violence within the system, I would use statistical evidence. For example, I created 35 sugar ship models of the first and last ship that set sail, as the journey took roughly 35 days to transport the workers.

The research also helps me determine what materials to use, such as the sugar paste, which is a recipe from the Renaissance era. Sugar paste was used to create subtleties and ‘relief sculptures’ of religious and political scenes for the king and noble class to ponder while being served meals. I wanted to subvert this colonial object to render something more intimate instead. Together with the molasses and its bittersweetness, it speaks to this history of indentureship.

My research serves as inspiration for my work; I’m always trying to find different ways to interpret in creating my own visual language. I think it’s also important to have a different way of looking at the history of indentureship – its history was written through the eyes of colonial administrators, as opposed to the workers and descendants.

Research notes and image references taped to Zenaéca Singh’s studio wall, photographed by Zoë du Toit (top); To a new beginning (bottom left), My Seedlings I Detail (bottom right). | Artwork images courtesy of Zenaéca Singh and Guns & Rain.

The faces in your image sequences are blurred; does it carry a deeper meaning?

For one part, it is a matter of ethics, as I could not get everyone’s consent to be painted. The people in my molasses paintings are family relatives, and I wanted to give them some sense of privacy. The viscosity of molasses – which is very thick but fluid – also makes it difficult to render detail on both small and large-scale [paintings]. It tends to spread or pool in areas of the canvas before it starts to seep into the surface, making it an interesting process when working with the photos. I also like that it blurs the figures slightly because it opens the possibility of viewers relating to their own memories and the faces they think of and see.

Progress (top); Dada and Ma Series (bottom left), Dada and Ma Detail (bottom right) | Images courtesy of artist, Zenaéca Singh, and Guns & Rain gallery.

I wanted to create paintings of family photos to portray the community and history more intimately, as there was much more to the lives of indentured workers despite the ongoing hardships.

Have you always known about the history of your ancestors?

I am a descendant of indentureship, but also a born-free citizen, so questions of freedom and belonging were always interesting yet peculiar to me, as I did not know a lot about indentureship. On my paternal side, I am the fourth generation born in South Africa. However, I am not able to trace the exact roots of my matrilineage.

I find that stories of indenture are either celebrated or silenced because not many were [able] to overcome the hardships of the past. I then took to research to find answers and gather a sense of my identity politics, which then informed my art-making.

Zenaéca Singh in her studio, Michaelis School of Fine Art (UCT). | Photographed by Zoë du Toit

Are there any messages you hope viewers might take away after experiencing your art?

I hope that it can open conversations about this history, as well as be informative of it.

You’ve won awards and belong to UCT’s Accelerated Transformation of the Academic Programme Fellowship, congrats! What’s been the top highlight of your career thus far?

Thank you! It has been a true blessing to have my work recognised; the ATAP fellowship is definitely one highlight, as it allows me to expand my artistic process that much more. Other highlights include having been featured in a duo show called ‘Us’, that I did with Bougaard at Guns and Rain gallery in 2023. The show was an exploration of our heritage that revealed our troubling legacies, reminding us to create a meaningful sense of community.

Another highlight was to showcase at the Association of Visual Arts (AVA) Leeuwenhof IV edition, an annual exhibition at the Slave Quarters Remembrance Gallery. It focused on the thematic connection in young artists’ work to the heritage of the Cape and, in one way or another, the concept or inherited experience of slavery.

My Coolie Marys (top); The Sweet Successors (bottom left), Sugar portraits (bottom right) | Images courtesy of artist, Zenaéca Singh, and Guns & Rain gallery.

Have you got any exciting projects lined up?

I have a few exciting projects that I am working on this year, as well as my Master’s showcasing at the end of the year. I am exploring the gender aspects of indentureship, along with my matrilineage, and new methods of sugar crystallisation in this new body of work.

Your work was featured at last year’s Investec Cape Town Art Fair, are you excited to return?

I am! This year, I am part of a bigger platform, the Guns & Rain Main Booth, where I will be showing new paintings and ‘sugar glass’ works amongst other talented artists. I am very grateful to have this opportunity to expose my work to a greater audience, and hope it will resonate with the viewers to see their history being represented.

Do you have any advice for young local artists?

Don’t be afraid to pursue your passion – always trust yourself and the process.

Home Sweet Home (2023); Molasses, sugar and resin on canvas (top) | Artist Zenaéca Singh paints in her studio (bottom left), Granny and Grandpa (bottom right) | Images courtesy of artist, Zenaéca Singh, and Guns & Rain gallery.

*Experience Zenaéca Singh’s work at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair Main Booth, Guns and Rain, 16-18 Feb 2024 at the CTICC. Visit the links below to explore more of her art. 

@zenaeca | gunsandrain.com

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