A Subtlety or… The Marvelous Sugar Baby
An Homage To The Unpaid And Overworked Artisans Who Have Refined Our Sweet Tastes From The Cane Fields To The Kitchens Of The New World On The Occasion Of The Demolition Of The Domino Sugar Refining Plant
Kara E. Walker at the Sugar Factory
By Deanna Sirlin
At first there is the smell. It is rich, pungent, and sweet: so delightful, so forbidden. All my senses are awakened. We are led down a path to the backside of this great big factory building, which is now a shell of its former industrial self. This building is a landmark for New Yorkers that sat empty on the East River for many years. It is dark inside, with sugar resin built up on the grand factory walls. The walls are quite beautiful, like some giant Abstract Expressionist painting with lovely dark drips. You see the huge white sculpture from a distance preceded by effigies of small boys placed around this great hall, leading us to the monumental figure at the other end of the building. These sad little boys carrying baskets of fruit, based on small trinkets Walker found on Amazon.com, are made of the brown resin of burnt and liquidated sugar. They have been torched a bit where they stand, immobile, quiet and a dark brown hue. They brought to mind Sugar Babies, sweet little candies I ate as a school child, whose name sadly was also used as a racial slur. They refer to the 19th century slave trade that supported the sugar industry as well as to subtleties, little sugar sculptures to be eaten between the courses of a banquet in the 16th and 17th century. Their scale and abject demeanor contrast sharply with the Sphinx/mammy they serve.
I am lucky to be here on a day when the light outside is strong and clear, streaking across this wonderful huge sphinx with the head of a mammy, so much like Aunt Jemima yet so sexual and made of that most wonderful of wonderful substances, white sugar. Her great head is wrapped in a do-rag, and her full thick lips do not smile or welcome. Her pose, like that of many Sphinxes, is that of an animal, with her arms stretched out in front of her. On one hand, the thumb is inserted between the index and middle figures, the gesture of warding off the evil eye or telling you to fog off. She has thrust her big butt in the air to show us her vulva; she is in heat. I am here on Mother’s Day and I am glad not to have to explain this to a mother or a daughter.
In an intense NPR piece by Audie Cornish who spent time in the factory with Walker, we heard about the work.
She’s doing what she does best: drawing you in with something sweet, something almost charming, before you realize you’ve admired something disturbing. In this case, that’s the horror-riddled Caribbean slave trade that helped fuel the industrial gains of the 18th and 19th centuries; a slave trade built to profit from an insatiable Western market for refined sugar treats and rum.
“Basically, it was blood sugar,” Walker says. “Like we talk about blood diamonds today, there were pamphlets saying this sugar has blood on its hands.”
She explains that to make the sugar, the cane had to be fed into large mills by hand. It was a dangerous process: Slaves lost hands, arms, limbs and lives.
“I’ve been kind of back and forth with my reverence for sugar,” Walker says. “Like, how we’re all kind of invested in its production without really realizing just what goes into it; how much chemistry goes into extracting whiteness from the sugar cane.”
Walker is very angry still. Her silhouettes, the work for which she first became well known, came out of her anger at the history of slavery in the American South. Although the opportunity to make such a monumental piece is something any artist would be thrilled by, especially a piece whose site relates so intimately to its historical theme, its very success with the public seems to have backfired to an extent. On the Internet, visitors complain of standing in line for 30 minutes or more (not quite a Disney-length wait, admittedly) while others post pictures of their friends making lewd gestures towards this big mammy. This certainly shows that the issues of racial difference that obsess Walker are hardly things of the past.
However, there is a great beauty in this enormous work. I love her. I worry about what will become of her, but perhaps I am being silly. In another interview, Walker laughs. The building is set for demolition. She kids, “let us cut of her head and watch it float down the East River at sunset.”
Subtlety. I had to look the word up to understand its precise connotations, including the culinary one I mentioned earlier. Here is the definition I found in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary: Subtlety: a small detail that is usually important but not obvious. Ah, Kara; you are so wise. Subtlety: this is the riddle of this Sphinx. If only I can separate out all the obvious things, the politics of the sugar trade, the slaves who farmed the product that they were traded for, the trademark of Aunt Jemima, who pushed liquid sugar and pancakes to Americans in the guise of the great mother or mammy. The term subtlety has a connection to the idea of refinement. Sugar was refined to make it pure, but it also has to do with making ideas more precise and subtle. Walker has spun a new take on her anger and made her ideas monumental; her success is oh so sweet.
Deanna Sirlin is an artist and Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section
Kara Walker's A Subtlety . . . presented by Creative Time, is on view at the Domino Sugar Factory in New York City through July 6, 2014.
Photos: All photos of Kara Walker's A Subtlety . . . are by Deanna Sirlin.