To Those on the Plantations

2020 | Coffee jute sack, coffee beans, grinds & chaff

This work is a six by five-foot mural made of coffee beans, grounds, and chaff. These materials are attached to jute coffee sacks that have been sewn together. The use of the jute fabric and the hanging installation of this mural give it a tapestry-like quality. The coffee bean elements are arranged to convey an image of a Latin American coffee plantation. From raw to darkly roasted, variously treated beans and grounds are utilized to infer form and value. The scene depicts several plantation workers—some with sacks, some with baskets—all amongst the rows of coffee crop that stretch toward the horizon.

Image Courtesy of Britannica

The imagery of this scene was modeled after both historical photographs of cotton plantations in the Southern United States during the 1800s and current images of coffee plantations in countries such as Brazil and El Salvador. By referencing this imagery, the work recalls slavery from the American memory and illustrates that these issues are not globally resolved. Of course, not all coffee plantations are engaging in the slavery of forced or bonded labor. However, the coffee industry is difficult to regulate and there is a trend of unethical labor practices on plantations in Central and South America.

This work also comments on coffee as a crop, commodity, and livelihood, reminding the viewer that human beings are an integral part of a process that yields a familiar and commonplace product.

Where does it come from? Who is it affecting?

I worked at a coffee shop for nearly two years, and I began asking about where the company gets its beans after beginning my research on this topic. It was a disturbing and contentious discovery for me to hear that while “they do their best,” the honest answer was that they weren't 100% certain about their product’s origins and the line of trade that occurs from getting the product from the field where it was cultivated, to the hot cup of coffee they sold. The honest answer is that it is more expensive and more time-consuming for a company to invest in direct trade methods and concern themselves with knowing exactly where their product is coming from, and who is getting the money from their purchase.

How ignorant and dangerous habit and convenience can be.

How easy it is for me, as an American consumer, to walk into a coffee shop, order my cortado, and not think twice about where the espresso bean came from, how it was processed, or who played a role in getting it from its plant to my cup. Similarly, I may grumble in the grocery aisle about how much my bag of coffee costs, and while the cost could possibly be marked up solely for the company’s profit, the hope is that it is marked higher in an effort to ethically return more money back to the workers on coffee plantations, therefore, making coffee a more equitable product.