The Detroit Institute of Arts pulls its punches with ‘Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea & Chocolate’

Coffee? Tea? Or colonialism?

On paper, the premise of the most recent special exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts is simple: Use the overarching theme of coffee, tea, and chocolate to showcase some exquisite examples from the Decorative Arts collection (as well as some strategic objects on loan). But as the title suggests, Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea & Chocolate has some loaded subtext — and while the exhibition hints at the impact these luxury items have had on the history of global trade and colonialism, it falls somewhat short of explicitly calling out the dark side of consumer demand.

Perhaps it is too much of an expectation for a museum to take a hardline stance on historical geopolitics and trade markets. Can't we just have a nice installation of lovely objects, organized thematically around the rituals associated with these works? What's wrong with admiring and venerating objects apart from their history?

I submit that we cannot. We live at a moment where forces align to disengage objects from their meaning, actions from their consequences. We sit in homes surrounded by items made by hands we never see, at wages we would never consider livable. In our own city, the practices of displacement and colonialism play out on a micro-scale, one neighborhood at a time. To focus on the objects that serve coffee, tea, and chocolate without open acknowledgement of their context and the violent history of colonization and enslavement that created their place in our culture tacitly condones the means as justification for the ends.

Moreover, while there are a number of objects on display within the exhibition space that capture the divisive racial inequities of these commodities — coffee from Africa via the Middle East, tea from Asia, chocolate from the Americas, and sugar harvested by slaves on colonial plantations — there is little in the way of unpacking these dynamics as potentially disturbing to museumgoers. How allowable is it to marvel at the workmanship of "Sultan Riding an Elephant" (circa 1749) without acknowledging that the German Meissen Porcelain Manufactory has rendered the sultan's skin in the lightest of tones, while his servant is portrayed with skin so true-black as to make the features almost unreadable? This is not just an example of anachronistic fascination with exoticized culture from another land — it is an object lesson in racial hierarchy, now being repeated through its re-presentation.

Throughout the rooms, people of color are depicted in their roles as plantation slaves or servants, or rendered in the most reductionist of ceramic caricatures. The interpretive sections of the show seem to focus assiduously on the products themselves — highlighting tea ceremonies, inviting the hands-on comparison between delicate porcelain and heavier-duty stoneware — rather than offering a hard-truth history lesson in the ravages of global capitalism. This is not to say that the objects themselves lack appeal, or that they are not presented with thoughtful touches — only that the museum as a house for the worship of indecent luxury chafes a bit, as every day our country's ideal of representative democracy is essentially scrapped and sold for parts to society's wealthiest members.

When one gets deeply immersed in the wall text, there are occasionally some more difficult truths parlayed about the objects within the exhibition — and this makes it hard to discern the degree of self-awareness at play in its presentation. Bread crumbs throughout the exhibit might be seen to indict this legacy of forcible international consumerism, but one has to dive in deeply to get beyond the initial impression that this is merely a showcase of beautiful objects and their attendant traditions.

In the final room of the exhibit is a hot chocolate tasting — and what could be a more welcome experience, as we descend into another polar vortex winter (though, we are assured, definitely not the result of irrevocable climate change due to poorly regulated worldwide industrialization)? Having wandered through this complex weave of luxury and colonization, I cannot avoid the feeling, as I am handed my sample-size hot chocolate by a friendly DIA employee, that we are striking a remarkably similar tableau to a painting from 1755 presented in the "Coffee" section of the exhibition. "Madame de Pompadour as a Sultana (La Sultane)" depicts the mistress of a French king, reclining in her boudoir wearing vaguely Turkish-inspired clothing, receiving a cup of coffee from an African serving woman. Delicious though as it were, the moment provided a window into the ways in which I remain complicit in systems of inequity, on both a global and a localized scale, and that made it a little harder to swallow.

Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea & Chocolate runs through March 15, 2017 at the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave, Detroit; 313-833-7900; Tickets for this special exhibition are timed and limited. Advance purchase is strongly recommended. $8 and up.

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