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.