If you know the sexually and racially charged art of Kara Walker, you know one thing—she’s not subtle. Walker’s artistic oeuvre to date makes the title of her newest work, which is also her first large-scale public project, all the funnier—A Subtlety. Subtitled the Marvelous Sugar Baby for the 35-foot-high, 75-foot-long, sugar sphinx “Mammy” (shown above) at the heart of the exhibition, Walker’s “subtlety” show both alludes to the absurdly elaborate desserts (also known as “entremets”) the nobility of the past would stage for their guests as well as the subtle, unseen ways that the sugar we use to sweeten our lives still comes as the cost of the embitterment of lives of those living in third world countries. Adding to the symbolism, A Subtlety appears in the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, which was once the largest sugar refinery in the United States but which is now destined for the wrecking ball. In what might be the most significant (if not the physically largest) artistic statement of the year, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety enacts sweet, not so subtle revenge on big sugar of yesterday and calls us to examine the cruelty mixed into every sweet spoonful today.
Walker’s big statement comes thanks of a commission from Creative Time, the four-decade-old, New York City-based organization “guided by three core values: art matters, artists’ voices are important in shaping society, and public spaces are places for creative and free expression.” Along with those core values, Creative Time is “committed to presenting important art for our times and engaging broad audiences that transcend geographic, racial, and socioeconomic barriers,” which makes their relationship with Walker—a long-time advocate for racial, gender, and social equality—a match made in art heaven. Just like a previous Creative Time commission, Tribute in Light (the pair of beacons that projected a ghostly version of the Twin Towers after 9/11), A Subtlety hopes to illuminate a dark chapter in American history and shine a light on the path to recovery.
Even Walker’s introduction to the exhibition drips with sweet sarcasm: “At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: 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.” Scattered around the sphinx Walker places smaller, brown, sugar sculptures of children holding baskets filled with sugar or sugar products. The contrast between those dark children of sugar and the massive, almost glowing, white sphinx is striking. Around the Marvelous Sugar Baby’s polystyrene core, Walker sculpted 160,000 pounds of sugar donated by Domino Sugar, perhaps an acknowledgment of (small atonement for?) past injustices. Similarly, as Hrag Vartanian points out over at Hyperallergic, Jed Walentas, owner of Two Trees, the development company tearing down the 19th century plant (which still reeks of sugar and even has molasses oozing on the walls) to build a controversial multi-use development including commercial space, high-priced condos, some (but not nearly enough) affordable housing, and a public boardwalk, is on the board of Creative Time, the organization that commissioned Walker’s work, which might make A Subtlety a subtle public relations move to appease the locals.
The sphinx itself contains some subtle and not so subtle features. Perhaps alluding to theories that the Great Sphinx of Giza had African features (at least until, as legend claims [probably falsely], Napoleon had the offending African nose shot off), Walker gives her sphinx clearly African features and, according to Blake Gopnik, might even be a self-portrait. Walker makes the sphinx’s left hand give the “fig” gesture, which can mean (more commonly) an obscenity or (less commonly) good luck depending on your culture and perspective. Walk around to the other end of the sphinx and you’ll find Walker’s sculpted her “Mammy” with anatomically correct, albeit massive sexuality. (Scroll to the bottom of this article to see many, some NSFW images of the exhibition.)
Walker’s A Subtlety takes the story of the enforced slavery of people to create sugar and embodies all the cruel absurdity of the system in the Marvelous Sugar Baby’s huge, absurd face, transformed from its natural dark hue to the sanitized whiteness of forgotten history. Walker’s sphinx puts an absurd face on the ridiculousness of forgetting the racial injustices of the past, much like Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy, and others have unintentionally lent their faces to the reality that a post-racial America is nothing more than a sweet dream. To accompany Walker’s A Subtlety, Creative Time commissioned other artists to address the connection between sugar and inequality that still exists today. Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat’s The Price of Sugar reveals the harsh labor conditions on contemporary sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic, in which Haitian men, women, and children are trafficked to work on Dominican sugarcane plantations under conditions cruelly similar to those of the distant past. Danticat charges Americans with complicity in this system. “[A] much higher price is being paid for sugar than the few dollars we hand over at the supermarket counter,” she writes. “In some cases that price is everything. That price is life and death.” When Danticat points out that “[a]ccording to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States imports more than 200,000 tons of sugar from the Dominican Republic each year,” the magnitude of our complicity in the misery falls on you like a giant sugar sphinx.
In another companion work, titled “To Drink My Sweet Body,” Haitian novelist Jean-Euphèle Milcé imagines himself a Haitian plantation worker invited by the bosses to share in a toast of rum: “Let’s raise our glasses to a great crop for the Haitian Sugar Cane Company and to all the refineries in the world. Believe me, you are heroes. Your labor feeds the happiness of others. The world needs sweetness and evanescence. To your work, which makes the world sweeter!” Swallowing that sweet rum with the bitter reality contradicting that toast seems impossible, but it’s something those workers do every day. Kara Walker’s A Subtlety asks viewers to swallow a large dose of history and present day reality without sugarcoating the cruelty behind big sugar yesterday, today, and most likely tomorrow unless changes happen both here in American and wherever the sugar targeted for our sweet tooth is harvested. It’s a bitter pill we’d rather not swallow, but coming to terms with the cost of conscienceless capitalism—centuries too late for so many—is one, not-so-subtle way to save our collective soul.