Shelley Miller

2020 · Handmade sugar tiles, hand painted

This sugar mural was originally commissioned by The Rooms (St. John’s, NL) for the exhibition “What Carries Us; Newfoundland and Labrador in the Black Atlantic”. February 29 - September 7, 2020

Curated by Bushra Junaid, this exhibition aims to bring a new perspective to Newfoundland and Labrador's centuries-old trade in salt, cod, molasses, rum and other commodities. Though this history is now forgotten, Newfoundland and Labrador played a significant role in the triangular trade system that moved enslaved people and goods between North and South America, Africa and the Caribbean.

The sugar mural TRADE was created for this exhibition (which included works by Sonia Boyce, Sandra Brewster, and Camille Turner).

Digital recreation supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, Digital Originals grant.

the tiles for a closer look. Tiles with magnifier icons have more details.



Shelley Miller

Bibliography (works quoted)

Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. Penguin Books: New York. 1998

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press: London. 2016.

Skelly, Julia. Radical Decadence: Excess in Contemporary Feminist Textiles and Craft. Bloomsbury Academic. 2017.

McKinley, Catherine E. Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World. Bloomsbury Publishing. 2011


Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador

Maritime History Archive

Exhibition Reviews

Boon, Sonia. “What Carries Us” Canadian Art Online. September 14,2020

Boon, Sonia. “Listening to Silence” Visual Art News June 4, 2020

For Further Reference

(Reading list compiled by Camille Turner and included in the exhibition What Carries Us; Newfoundland and Labrador in the Black Atlantic.)

The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper

Done with Slavery by Frank Mackey

Canada's Forgotten Slaves by Marcel Trudel and Micheline d' Allaire

North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes by Harvey Amani Whitfield

Black Slavery in the Maritimes: A History in Documents by Harvey Amani Whitfield


the tiles for a closer look. Tiles with magnifier icons have more details. About this project · Bibliography

Sugar paste

This image shows the process of making the sugar tiles for “Trade”. Each batch of handmade fondant makes about 5 finished tiles. During the fabrication of this mural, I was also doing an artist-in-residence at École Academie Dunton, a secondary school in Montreal.

Wasps on outdoor mural

My sugar murals are typically installed outdoors, in urban settings, where they wash away and erode. Wasps have been known to cluster around my murals, as they begin to wash away, sugar rehydrating, creating sticky surfaces for greedy mouths. In this way, the aspects of excess and consumption are emphasized.

On the top of the mural, centrally framed, I have a globe. It shows a typical triangle trade route, connecting the Eastern seaboard of the United States to Africa, and to the Carribean. I have added to the standard Triangle maps, however, creating a dotted line to show the often forgotten trade routes that link Newfoundland to this global trade.

“Britain’s first major attempt to reassert its colonial monopoly was the Molasses Act of 1733, which imposed such heavy import duties on molasses from the non-British Caribbean that it should have virtually eliminated the trade. By making the purchase of French West Indies molasses unprofitable, the measure should have not only reduced New Englanders’ markets for cod but also reduced their rum industry. It did neither, because the French were eager to work with the New-Englanders in a lucrative contraband arrangement. Cod-molasses trade between New England and the French-Caribbean actually grew after the Molasses Act.” (Kurlansky, 95)

“Indigo was a cornerstone of the trans-Atlantic slave trade—part of the hidden half of commodities, like cotton, sugar, salt and gold—that fueled colonial empires and compounded the extraordinary wealth and power of African ones. Though indigo grew wild along the Southern coast of the United states, and was cultivated as early as the 1622, it was a woman, Eliza Lucas, who is credited with having introduced indigo to the American colonies in the mid-1700s … She soon discovered the skill her slaves had with indigo cultivation and indigo dye production.” (Excerpted from Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World by Catherine E. McKinley. Copyright 2011 by Catherine E. McKinley. Bloomsbury Publishing.)

“In the 17th century, the strategy for sugar production, a labor-intensive agro-industry, was to keep the manpower cost down through slavery. At harvest time, a sugar plantation was a factory with slaves working sixteen hours or more a day - chopping cane by hand as close to the soil as possible, burning fields, hauling cane to a mill, crushing, boiling. To keep working under the tropical sun, the slaves needed salt and protein. But plantation owners did not want to waste any valuable sugar planting space on growing food for the hundreds of thousands of Africans who were brought to each small Caribbean island. The Caribbean produced almost no food. At first slaves were fed salted beef from England, but New England colonies soon saw the opportunity for salt cod as cheap, salted nutrients.” (Kurlansky, 80)

Shelley painting sugar tiles

The process of painting the sugar tiles. This image is from a sugar mural I did in Brazil. Typically, I painted the tiles in groupings, then later put them all together to join up the design.

Blue colour tests

Every shade of blue carries different meaning and reference. I carefully pick my colours, sometimes creating custom blends of commercial colours to achieve my ideal result.

As Kurlansky describes in his book Cod, the list was long for why cured cod was not accepted by Mediterranean markets; “badly split fish, the wrong weather conditions during drying, too much salt, too little salt, bad handling” (Kurlansky, 80). The West Indies, however, presented itself as a market for anything cheap. For this reason West India was the commercial name for the lowest quality of salt cod (Kurlansky, 81)

Mural in Portuguese bank in Montreal

This picture was taken inside a Portuguese bank in Montreal. It is not a traditional azulejo but a contemporary replica. I show this image to illustrate how the imagery of ships in ceramic murals continues to be prevalent within the Portuguese diaspora.

The Collins dictionary describes the phrase “sugar coating” as “a thing used to make something else considered unpleasant or disagreeable seem attractive or palatable”. Through my work, I continue to ask what the legacy of colonization is and how do I navigate my personal role. What are the new forms of power systems in the world, and how are these sugar coated?

Schooner A. V. Conrad

Schooner A. V. Conrad, n.d.

The A. V. Conrad carried salt fish from Newfoundland to Southern Europe, Brazil, and the Caribbean. This ship was constructed in 1908. Painter unknown. From the Dr. Harry Roberts Slide Collection, Maritime History Archive. Reproduced by permission of the Maritime History Archive (PF-008.020), Memorial University, St. John's, NL.

Ship on Newfoundland stamp

Ship imagery runs deep in popular culture and artifacts in Newfoundland and Labrador. Several postage stamps have featured John Cabot’s ship “Matthew” as commemoration of the founding of the province, and consequently the colonization of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Stamp Image: Cabot’s ship “Matthew”, Newfoundland, 1497 - 1949

The date of issue was April 1, 1949 just after Newfoundland united in Confederation with Canada.

Historical records recognize that John Cabot, a hired Italian seaman, was the first European to discover this island in the year 1497. It’s believed he reached Newfoundland on the Matthew following a 35-day voyage. He claimed the country for King Henry VII of England. The stamp design was based on a model of Cabot's ship, the Matthew made by Ernest Maunder of St. John's, Newfoundland.

I have swapped out some of the pictorial tiles for decorative replacement tiles, resulting in the viewer’s eye to flow and move, dancing around the central ship image. I wanted to create visual fluidity, like a ping-pong effect of the eye moving between elements, trying to connect them. It is as if pieces were missing, patched in with factory samples, a practice which was sometimes used on old murals. In similar fashion, we are often faced with a version of history where truths get concealed or exchanged for different narratives.

Barrel in What Carries Us exhibition

Image of actual wooden barrel in the exhibition “What Carries Us”. Part of the collection of The Rooms.

Eroding Cargo mural

Typically my sugar murals are installed outdoors, intended to wash away and erode. This is a detail from the mural “Cargo” installed in Montreal, part of Quartier Éphémére’s Plan Large billboard project, presented in the context of Mois de la photo, 2009.

I use hybrid compositional features and decorative styles in my murals, intentionally evoking multiple European origins, be it azulejos, or English porcelain dishware, or Delft tiles. My aim is to reflect aristocratic, colonial society that supported the sugar slave trade.

“But wakes are also the track left on the water’s surface by a ship; the disturbance caused by a body swimming, or one that is moved, in water; the air currents behind a body in flight; a region of disturbed flow; in the line of sight of (an observed object); and (something) in the line of recoil of (a gun); finally, wake means being awake and, also, consciousness.” (Sharpe, 21)

Sharpe, Christina. “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being”. Duke University Press: London. 2016.

Shipping Barrel, ca. 1905

Shipping Barrel, ca. 1905

Salt cod fish was packed in shipping barrels like this for transport to market.

Photographer unknown. From the Job Photograph Collection, Maritime History Archive. Reproduced by permission of the Maritime History Archive (PF-315.135), Memorial University, St. John's, NL.

Website: Heritage Newfoundland

The skull painting is a reference to Dutch Still Life traditions of vanitas and memento mori. Vanitas still lifes are artworks that remind the viewer of the shortness and fragility of life. Closely related are memento mori, which is a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’ and include symbols such as skulls and extinguished candles. Vanitas still-lifes can also include other symbols such as musical instruments, wine and books to remind us explicitly of the vanity (in the sense of worthlessness) of worldly pleasures and goods. In this case, I am referring to sugary desserts and candy, which are luxuries, not necessities as we often think they are in our daily consumption.

Ceramic wall tiles in Salvador, Brazil

This photo was taken during a visit to Salvador, Brazil in 2008 when I first began creating sugar murals in the azulejo style. I found this ceramic wall with ship images inside the entrance to a building. They have the Order of Christ’s cross painted on the mast, also found on the mast’s of many early Portuguese ships in the colonial founding of Brazil.

“By 1700, the British West Indies could not absorb all of New England’s cod. Nor could it fully supply New England’s rum industry, which was a by-product of the cod trade. Typical of the difference between New England and Newfoundland, Newfoundland imported Jamaican rum for local bottling, and still does, whereas New England imported molasses and built its own rum industry to sell to foreign markets. There were now three ways to buy slaves in West Africa: cash, salt cod, or Boston rum.” (Kurlansky, 89)

Installation of Trade mural at The Rooms

Image taken during the installation of the “Trade” mural at The Rooms. To transport the sugar tiles for installation, I pack them like ceramic tiles: vertically in a box. As they are very fragile, I carry them carefully, in small handmade crates, during transit on flights.

The British Empire was growing in the Victorian era and the middle class taste for sugar was also in growing demand. High tea was a popular ritual among the affluent classes, gradually spreading to the working class. Sugar was used to sweeten the tea, as well as needed to make the cakes and pastries. It was common to see parlour walls with a decorative dado (referring to the lower section of a wall), beneath a midline wall border or railing. This reference to a Victorian parlour represents the place where tea might be served.

The barrels, stacked, mimicking the form of a column, commonly seen in traditional azulejo murals, are hogs heads, the type of wooden barrels that were used to transport cod, molasses, rum and raw sugar. Whichever their use, I use them to symbolize the economy that supported colonial expansion.

Rolling a sugar tile

The sugar tiles are made with a customized recipe of fondant. I roll it out like clay and make the tiles, only painting them after they dry and harden.

Painting tiles

Process of painting the mural; I begin with painting the outline and then building up layers of textures and tone.

Illustrations of sugar cane and leather whips are integrated into the dado wall panel design as a way to re-insert the hidden narrative of sugar’s brutal labour practices back into the parlour.

In speaking about my work, art historian Julia Skelly states “…hers is a critical project that underscores the complexities, even risks, of pleasure. Her sugar works are founded in the knowledge that sugar, as a luxury, long had ties to the slave trade. Miller’s cakes speak to the fact that luxury products are always “tainted” by ethics and politics, labour and consumption” (Skelly, 2017: 37).

The pillar of barrels is situated on a marble base, similar to the architectural trompe l’oeil depicted in many traditional azulejo murals. I reference stone columns and pillars to represent colonial power structures in architecture. These architectural features symbolize the base that held and supported oppressive systems like the slave trade.

Using a hand press to make sugar tiles

The sugar tiles are made by hand, using a tile press. They are then left to air dry, needing to be turned regularly, to avoid warping in the drying process. The more humid the environment, the longer time they need to dry.

Trade mural installed at The Rooms

Installation view of my mural “Trade” in the exhibition “What Carries Us: Newfoundland and Labrador in the Black Atlantic”.

“But the Americans had not won access to markets. They were barred from trade with the British West Indies, a tremendous commercial loss for New England resulting in a tragic famine among slaves cut off from their protein supply. Between 1780 and 1787, 15,000 slaves died of hunger in Jamaica. In time, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland took up the slack, and their fisheries too became largely geared for low-grade West India saltfish.” (Kurlansky, 100)

Although I began replicating the look of azulejos in the Brazilian context, I have since created my sugar murals in Canada, India, the United States and Australia. I have continued to use the blue and white colour palette even in works outside the context of Brazil because I want to continue referencing not only Portugal’s role in colonization and the global sugar trade, but the entire system of the sugar slave trade that accompanied European colonization in the 16th - 19th centuries. This includes implicating France, England, the Netherlands, and Spain.

“The cod is omnivorous, which is to say it will eat anything. It swims with its mouth open and swallows whatever will fit - including young cod… A cod jigger is a piece of lead, sometimes fashioned to resemble a herring, but often shaped like a young cod. Yet cod might be just as attracted to an unadorned piece of lead. English fishermen say they find Styrofoam cups thrown overboard from Channel-crossing ferries in the bellies of cod.” (Kurlansky, 33)