Tortured artist is sweet on sugar‚ despite allergy

Kyra Papé working on her sugary art. Picture Credit: YouTube screenshot
Kyra Papé working on her sugary art. Picture Credit: YouTube screenshot

While we are all familiar with the notion of the tortured artist‚ we may not expect it to manifest in a sugar sculptor with an allergy to the very sweet substance she’s obsessed with.

Kyra Papé‚ 23‚ has struggled with allergies for much of her life and in recent years her sugar allergy has become increasingly severe.

Sugar is also the unpredictable key ingredient in the artwork she produces. She burns it until just before it becomes coal.

“Once sugar is melted‚ it never stops melting. On a really hot day it may not melt at all. On a day that is freezing cold‚ it could melt rapidly. On some days the sugar wants to behave and on some days it wants to be a little brat‚” Papé says in her makeshift art studio on Wits University’s east campus in Johannesburg.

“It keeps me in such an obsessed process of being intrigued. I never know what’s going to happen and that’s the absolute best part.”

The final-year Master’s student works with steel‚ ink‚ foam and sugar. She covers steel surfaces with foam and drizzles melted sugar on top.

“Sometimes I’ll have the sculpture installed and I’ll cover it. Other times I roll the sculpture around on the floor and as the sugar falls‚ I manipulate it.”

The sugar drips off the sculptures in stalactite formations onto trays or paper below. The drippings are then printed on paper. The sugar rejects the ink to reveal amoeba-like shapes. The prints then inspire new sculptures in a cyclical process.

“[The sculptures] are my babies. They’re living for me because they’re always in a state of flux and change‚” Papé says.

Ironically‚ many see dying organs or wounds in the sugar-coated creations.

While sugar fuels Papé’s art-making process‚ it interferes with meal times.

“I’m limited at the moment to any intake of sugar. I used to be able to have fructose‚ but now I can’t have lactose‚ fructose or sucrose.”

Papé cannot have gluten‚ dairy‚ sugar or sulphur‚ but she can have rice and pap. With an egg allergy‚ breakfast‚ her favourite meal of the day‚ is a struggle.

“My worst reactions are with ingestion – if I breathe sugar in or eat it. If I breathe in too much‚ it causes my whole stomach to swell. All my organs and intestines‚ everything‚ swells and cramps.”

Papé’s skin also breaks out in sores‚ which only begin to heal with antibiotic cream.

“It’s a very violent‚ vulgar process. My reactions aren’t great but this whole process is worth it for me. I try to be as safe as possible always.”

This means being protected from head to toe. Papé wears a gas mask‚ a protective suit and gloves when melting and working with sugar. In the melting process she keeps a fan on in case too much smoke creeps through the filters of her mask.

“For me the sugar is something I can’t experience with any sense‚ so it’s important people experience the art with every sense.

“When I do installations I like to burn sugar in the space beforehand so that when people walk in they can smell it. Sometimes I’ll leave it where it’s spilled on the floor so that when people walk in‚ their feet get stuck.”

Papé also encourages people dig their fingers into the molten sugar in her sculptures. She wants people to engage with sugar beyond their dessert cravings.

“People need to become aware of sugar beyond something they ingest. Now we’re getting sugar taxes. If you think of the history of sugar‚ it carries such an intense and abject history. You can’t just ignore it. You have to engage with it.”

While she knows other people who are allergic to sugar‚ she doesn’t know anyone who has died from an allergic reaction.

“This is why I’m intrigued by it. Sugar doesn’t kill you‚ it tortures you.”

Kyra Pape, Sculptor with a sugar allergy




TMG Digital