What more can possibly be said about Kara Walker? She is known as the youngest MacArthur “genius” as well as the youngest artist to receive a retrospective in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As for her work, her Antebellum paper silhouettes compel you to look and keep looking because of the grotesque and violent details. It makes you question yourself as you see black mammies and picaninnies get their revenge on former masters and mistresses by raping them with kitchen utensils, taking shits in their modest presence or allowing black bodies to combine into ghastly monsters. You begin to wonder why you like it as you walk around her exhibitions because after a while you’re a little disturbed by the racially charged content.

Recently, Creative Time NYC and Kara Walker collaborated on a project to be housed inside of an old Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, New York. The sculptural installation will be on view until 6 July. As with the rest of Brooklyn’s gentrification, it’s going to be torn down to make way for new condos to house whatever characters that will inhabit the place. (Creative Time later announced that it wouldn’t be condos but instead a public park.) What they collaborated on and housed inside the old plant is what makes me wonder about cultural controversy, identity formation, and the female gaze in terms of objectification.

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” at Domino Sugar Factory (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

photo by Hrag Vartanian of Hyperallergic

Now, let’s talk about reality first. I haven’t seen the installation in person yet but there are numerous images available on the internet that make me feel as if I can describe to you what it would be like to walk into the plant. My best guess is this: as you approach the dilapidated building you are greeted by an artist statement outside to read the formal title of the work, “A Subtlety: A 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.” Walker is notorious for giving her works long ass titles. They read like poetry and often end up truncated. Then you go inside the building.

Does it still smell like sugar? Can sugar smell old?

I don’t know but these are things I would wonder if given the chance to visit the installation. That is until I would look up and see a large, white mammy sphinx in front of me as I’m guided by the 13 little suagr boys toward her body. There she is.

Hands on the ground.
Ass in the air.
Titties exposed with aroused nipples.
Vagina peeking out in the back.
Kerchief wrapped around a head with a wide negro nose and big negro lips.
And pure white like powdered sugar

It’s damn shocking. Actually, really fucking shocking because from what I can tell of the space is that it’s dark everywhere except for openings that used to be windows and I bet she really brightens the place up too. Scattered throughout the space are what Walker calls Banana Boys. Life-size statues of little boys cast in sugar resin holding baskets of the same substance but looking like crystallized sugar. Their bodies were derived from tchotchkes she purchased from Amazon. They come in different colors that range from intensely dark browns to burnt umber hues that I would call redbone (a racial epitaph from my childhood). They are dotted throughout the space and around the sphinx like her children or servants to a goddess. I don’t know which one but they seem to shift roles back and forth. Maybe they serve as figurative representations of Tar Baby in the 21st century.

And the sphinx herself?

She sits in the back of the old structure with a presence as grand as the original Sphinx in Egypt. Does she have a riddle to decipher? Does she represent something to her audience? Are we her audience or her entertainment? We, the audience, are marveled by her body and structure. How did they do it? And is she made solely of sugar? No. She’s made of sturdy foam based on a clay replica designed by Walker and has been covered in 30 tons of powdered sugar. This technique has given her such a pristine white that it’s what amps up her presence in the space. Light can’t help but to bounce itself off her body and once again we are attracted to something Walker has created. These sensual elements are what makes her work very successful in the international art world.

But back home, on the frontlines where I reside, in a place that isn’t inhabited by art world patrons, saints and sinners, I become less marveled by Sugar Baby. She reminds me of struggles that involve issues of colorism, socioeconomic statuses and sexism. She reminds me of the belief that white is right. She reminds me of how much the American mainstream loves naked black bodies on display like animals at the zoo. She looks like hypersexualized black controversy. Something that repeats itself over and over again like broken records on victrolas. Oh, how I’m bored with this. According to an article in Black Art in America I could just not look at the sculpture because art is subjective and Walker is a fucking genius. Whatever. As artists, that ass is often up for criticism from anyone at any time and in any place. Just because she’s Kara E. Walker doesn’t make her any different. In the late 90s, African-American artist, Betye Saar created a letter writing campaign against Walker digging deep by asking if she even hates being black herself because of the violent content and nature of her works. After this white sphinx, I can’t help but to begin to wonder the same.

Since Walker is no stranger to controversial subjects, she uses it to her advantage and profits off white guilt from it. Her source material stays the same using historical image references from the Reconstruction period of the American South culturally known as the Antebellum South. She has been quoted as saying the words of the novel Gone With The Wind shocked her as child when her family moved to Atlanta from California. At the time of its original print, GWTW was a controversial novel because it depicted a white heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, who had to come to terms with a South that no longer existed after the Civil War. Who would care for her? How will she marry a man to take care of her? I don’t know and I don’t give too much a shit about her to care. I haven’t read the book or watched the movie. All I’ve seen are the tears Hattie McDaniel cried when she received an Oscar for playing Mammie. Hattie didn’t walk down the red carpet and she definitely wasn’t allowed to walk through the front door. The Sugar Baby is a visual ode to a character like Mammie and a supposed metaphorical representation of the real women like her. However, over here in the real world, not the art world, Mammie still exists and she comes in different colors from different cultures. She still speaks broken or improper standard English, she’s still cleaning houses and she’s still taking care of someone else’s children. I see her all the time waiting at bus stops, inside discount food or retail stores and standing in line at fast food establishments. People look down on her blackness as it exudes from her persona like rays of sunshine. In the mainstream media, she’s a background character like a servant to the white protagonist or a sidekick villain with an ignorant attitude. She’s laughable at best and nothing like Walker’s white Mammie sphinx who was celebrated with food, song and dance for Creative Time’s annual gala this year.

It was at this moment that I paused and the sculpture became disturbing because during the festivities I saw photo after photo of long tables covered in elaborate spreads with people laughing, talking and eating in front of Walker’s great big white Mammie sphinx which glowed brightly from the back of the building. The real Mammies of the world weren’t invited to this party but I’m sure they helped to serve the food and clean up. The patrons and supporters of Kara Walker were so proud to be there. They were taking photos of Sugar Baby and uploading them to social networking sites so people could see size comparisons of how big she is compared to average human height. She’s 35 feet tall and 75 feet long. They were revelling in the fact that their monies would go toward proceeds to an organization whose main focus is to end slavery.

Creative Time NYC’s annual gala celebrating Kara Walker.

This is too much I said to myself.

This looks like a celebration of the end of all blackness as we take steps further into the age of post-blackness. And her pussy is out.

Sugar Baby from the back.

Either way, I’m disturbed. Immensely. How exactly is this an homage to the men and women workers and artisans who crafted sweet confections? How does this celebrate slaves in sugar cane fields from the colonial-era Caribbean to South Carolina, Georgia and Florida? I need to know. It seems more like a celebration of Walker’s ego and what she has become. Here is where I believe our similar identities begin to separate in different directions.

My identity is based on the idea, concept and history of American blackness. The great, the good and the ugly like the Transatlantic slave trade. For me to view this sphinx, I see a complete whitewashing of the things I am so proud of in terms of blackness and the African diaspora. It makes me wonder if I even have a place within the current art world as an emerging artist and developing scholar. Sugar Baby looks down on me in her photos and all I want to do is see raw molasses drip from her head, over her nose and mouth and down her chest. As if to say that no matter how white you think you can become, you are still so black that it leaks from inside your massive curvaceous body. I also wish to see that same raw molasses drip from her exposed vagina, Let it leak to the floor to remind audiences of the sexualized violence that is committed toward women of color everyday. Being a contemporary artist informs me that if sexual violence happens to black women, violence definitely happens to Latino, Asian, Muslim, Indian women and the list goes on. All of them with varying degrees of violence committed and all of them with varying degrees of whiteness being pushed upon them. In the end, our personal female identities become distorted resulting in a representation of ourselves to appear to be like the big, white Mammy sphinx. I am not empowered by Sugar Baby. My family’s history isn’t empowered nor represented by Sugar Baby and these are the people she is supposed to be representing.

In my eyes, Sugar Baby is nothing more than a female figure with black body features covered in the idea of refined whiteness. Media in the 21st century has made it seem that many American and Americanized women believe they need curvy features like Beyonce and sexual appetites of porn stars. And if you’re not built that way in America, you will surely know it and begin to feel inadequate because of it. As a result of the growing undercover influence of pornography, especially globally, I find that many women are choosing to objectify other women in the name of white male supremacist patriarchy. To commit the same actions of your oppressor will only continue to leave you oppressed. There can’t be any freedom in this level of thinking. To make my point see the blatant exposure of Sugar Baby’s aroused breasts and engorged vagina. Since the early 2000s there has been an increase of the urban model. I blame that increase on hip hop and when the Internet really began working its way into many black households across the US during this time. Image references helped Walker appropriate a sexualized black female body due to the type of positioning of Sugar Baby’s ass in the air. It’s tooted and booted, baby. Ready to be taken by any man or woman who has taken on the characteristics of an aggressive man. What could it mean for a woman to project such an ideal? It’s the kind of thinking that leads women to “joke” with other women about rape. That’s not very funny when so many women have such violent acts committed to them on a daily basis. From the subtle street harassment to the extreme such as rape itself. How many women in the lowly position of kitchen help have been raped by their masters? How many men have dealt with the same? Yet, Sugar Baby was created in their honor.

That isn’t honorable. More like a spit in the face of the people who had to deal with the bullshit it takes to serve another human being. People who have never been paid as much as Kara Walker. People who are often taken advantage of and never get the label of genius placed upon them. No. Sugar Baby is a representation of what it takes to achieve success, what you must lose and at what cost all in the 21st century. First, you must become a sordid controversy of your own kind. Then you must align your identity to the whiteness that was created from colonialism. And last, you must reject your indigenous culture under the guidelines of whiteness because white is always right.

On the night of Creative Time’s annual gala, I never saw a celebration of Kara Walker. I saw a celebration of the continuing whiteness of the art world with a white mammy in the background. Paul Mooney stated in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled that “everybody wants to be black but don’t nobody want to be black.” A movie about a black man that rejects his blackness for wealth and notoriety in television entertainment until his dancing and jiving Mantan representation is killed on the internet for everyone to be entertained by.

How poetic just like Sugar Baby…

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  1. Celeste says:

    There’s the scene in 12 Years a Slave when Patsey is beaten for leaving the plantation in search of soap to wash away her funk. It is that scene I am reminded of whenever I see Kara Walker’s “Subtlety.” What adds insult to injury is the dining and the dancing. Suddenly, I Sarah Baartman, the Hottentot Venus and my blood boils. What gets Kara Walker the right to mock black women? Is it because she, too, is black or is it something more insidious, something that creeps into the psyche of someone who wants to be a slave forever?

  2. glenn weiss says:

    Thanks for the thoughtfulness. Your writing helps as I too have some hidden problem with Sugar Baby.

  3. Eddie Arroyo says:

    Sugar Baby is designed to speak to the frustrated and angry black women and not to the rich white collector. Seems to have done its job judging by this insightful article.

    • Carla says:

      Dude. Don’t ever talk to me about angry black women and don’t ever refer to me as an angry black woman. Sugar Baby is not designed to speak to the frustrated and angry black women. She is designed to remind the public about who holds power. You’re what my friends would call a DAN.

  4. black chokra says:

    I think you raise some interesting points but are awfully off-base on a number of issues. Firstly, how can anyone take your critique seriously when you have not seen this exhibition in person? You make some bizarre connections to Gone with the Wind, which again you did not see, nor have you read the book. How can you consider yourself a sort of “scholar” when you haven’t done even close to the bare minimum of research and are unfamiliar with the subjects you have decided to put in conversation. Furthermore, you clearly are unaware of the history, legacy, or reputation of Gone with the Wind for instance, indeed it was not a controversial film in the least. It might encapsulate American nostalgia for the Old South and may be the quintessential American film of all times. It is wildly popular, always has been, and likely always will be. This is a particularly bizarre move on your part especially because you contend that Walker is no stranger to controversy. This “whitening” you seem to obsess over is such base level analysis I am not sure you are even serious…As an “emerging artist” and “scholar” I would urge you to hit the studio and the library a bit harder–all black art is controversial. You should instead be focusing on the art world, larger issues of production and representation and the embeddedness of racialization in the United States. Otherwise, this reads like an uninformed diatribe from someone who saw a few photos on Instagram they didn’t like.


    • Carla says:

      “Firstly, how can anyone take your critique seriously when you have not seen this exhibition in person?” I stated that in the beginning by speaking on the reality that I haven’t seen the exhibition in person.

      “How can you consider yourself a sort of “scholar” when you haven’t done even close to the bare minimum of research and are unfamiliar with the subjects you have decided to put in conversation.” I’ve done research on Kara Walker. She’s the only artist I’m speaking about and I’m only referencing one of her numerous works. I like most but not everything. Also, these are my thoughts. Conversations develop and change over time when speaking to numerous people and hearing their point of views. You seem like you don’t do that very well.

      “Furthermore, you clearly are unaware of the history, legacy, or reputation of Gone with the Wind for instance, indeed it was not a controversial film in the least. It might encapsulate American nostalgia for the Old South and may be the quintessential American film of all times. It is wildly popular, always has been, and likely always will be.” No. I haven’t seen the film. At all. I also stated that I don’t give a shit about it. That doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a thing or two about it. Every clip that I’ve seen has disinterested me in watching the movie. Hattie McDaniel and Mammie are what interests me. I spoke about that.

      “This “whitening” you seem to obsess over is such base level analysis I am not sure you are even serious…As an “emerging artist” and “scholar” I would urge you to hit the studio and the library a bit harder…” I called myself a developing scholar. Once again, I did take the time to state the obvious.

      “You should instead be focusing on the art world, larger issues of production and representation and the embeddedness of racialization in the United States.” I am focusing on the art world, representation and the embeddedness of racialization because through images, moving and still, all signs point to whiteness.

      “Otherwise, this reads like an uninformed diatribe from someone who saw a few photos on Instagram they didn’t like.” In the end, it’s my opinion. And like assholes, everybody has one and quite frankly, all of them may stink. Your opinion stinks like the bullshit wiped across your upper lip. No, I don’t pictures of people celebrating around a large Mammie. And like assholes, everybody has one and quite frankly, all of them may stink. Your opinion stinks like the bullshit wiped across your upper lip.

      Sidenote: not all black art is controversial. Is a black man (or woman) who paints landscapes and scenes of daily life controversial? Answer that for me, please. If not, be a troll somewhere else.

      Thank for showing the love. Just how I reacted to Walker’s piece is how you just reacted to my piece. You fell into the trap, fucking idiot.

      • disturbed by your response more than this sculpture says:

        is there any reason why you need to attack people who criticize your commentary? i didn’t notice any personal insults from the person you responded to, seems as if you are driven by some kind of rage and anger when someone pointed out how specious your claims might be. why don’t you take the time to try to learn from someone else instead of just going off? did it make you feel good to tell someone who wished to engage with you that they have “bullshit wiped across their upper lip”? this is sad

        • Carla says:

          There are better ways to engage a conversation than what that person wrote. Obviously, you fail at your own criticism to my statement to another comment that doesn’t involve you at all. Bye, Felicia. Do better next time.

  5. YeahNoRight says:

    First off thanks for your interpretation of the work, and the pictures a lot of these are NOT included in the promoted photos of the work.

    I guess for me – the “whiteness” of the larger figure in contrast to the darkness of the smaller figures was a reference to the “bleaching” process that occurs when sugar is processed to become white. It could be a reference to the original state of one’s blackness being lost to colonization, assimilation or “bleaching” from the initial natural form as one ages in a society with subtle or not so subtle eurocentrism.

    Also, I interpreted the exaggerated proportions of the form to be probably due to a few things:
    1) A reference to the exoticization of the black female form i.e. Venus Hottentot which is obviously disempowering, dehumanizing

    2) Where the Sphinx rest there is a pyramid that peaks its apex from behind the Sphinx’s head – the ass being overemphasized here – might be a visual/symbolic substitute and/ or reference. to the sick european fascination with Saarjite Baartman’s anatomy as a “wonder and mystery” that was as inexplicable to them as the construction of the pyramids.

    3) A potential reference to the equally disproportionate Sphinx which seemed to have been done so for structural reasons, though the propotions here are 2.14 and the Spinx’s height/length ratio is 3.6

    In terms of the presence of her genitalia, I don’t know that in itself is inherently disrespectful. Sometimes I wonder if our perceptions of a woman being presented in the nude as a negative is a product of western thinking and the harmful presentations it attaches to the nude female form (i.e. as a vessel for men, of which no male dominating figure is present in this exhibit). Here her genitalia is exposed – but what is inherently wrong with that? Would it have been a de-sexing also potentially disrespectful or disempowering if it was hidden? A virtual genital mutilation to simply “erase” it?

    Finally, I’m not sure not using black molasses or sugar in its raw form was the point for Walker or something you can say is disrespectful to blackness, just IMO. If it is in fact a “subtlety” maybe what she is taking aim at is the process through which the white gaze distorts and covers everything in its own perception/image – whether it be the black body all the way down to something as mundane of vanilla, flour and yes – sugar. Yes this is a white image before you, but you can see its features, and its remnants and children, it clearly is not “white” in its origin. It in a sense is suggesting to me “despite your distortion of this figure or person” I will still place it in a position of regality. It is drawing a direct connection even to the Egyptian Sphinx, which to this day people will argue is not the product of African innovation and genius. So, I dunno, I don’t have the same concerns – but maybe I’ll be impacted differently if I have the opportunity to witness it all in person.

    Definitely something to think about…

    • Carla says:

      I like all three of your points. In terms of the exposed genitalia, I agree with you in that to negate that it’s there on her is disrespectful. But the position of the tooted rear places the sculpture in a hypersexual realm reminiscent of black porn magazines. If she was nude and in a position that is natural and not forced like this tooted rear, I probably would’ve said nothing at all about it. But I will say the effects of colonialism have caused such severe trauma to people of color worldwide to the point where this sphinx reinforces that fact instead of providing a new narrative for audiences to talk about.

  6. Phil says:

    Interesting exhibit, wish I coukd see it.
    However I had to do a bit of research to find out that the factory actually burned and not just an art exhibit.

    What I found:

    original twelve companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. A fire in 1882 caused the plant to be completely rebuilt in brick and stone, at least 10 stories high. Those buildings remain, albeit with some alterations made over the years.

    In 1917, while producing sugar for the Allies, an explosion destroyed part of the plant, killing several workers. A crowd of more than 15,000 people gathered to watch the plant burn. There was serious concern that the explosion was the work of German agents.

    The refinery was the site of one of New York City’s longest labor strikes in history. The strike occurred in 2000, with over 250 workers protesting wages and working conditions for twenty months.

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