Kara Walker’s 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.
The sticky, sweet aroma hits you the second you walk into the desolate space formerly known as The Domino Sugar Factory. Sugar, a commodity that was once considered a luxury is everywhere, in this warehouse and in our lives.
While the giant white sugar sphinx was the main attraction, it’s presence looming over all the weekend art watchers, small (by comparison) statues of children served as an appetizer of sorts. Their doe eyes and childlike figures were almost cartoonish, tempered with a solemn stare as they held onto the offering of the day. These were the children of Kara Walker’s “marvelous sugar baby”. The few children in attendance that day were naturally drawn to these figures. The contrast was jarring, childlike curiosity and innocence dancing around idols of a childhood lost to labor. Kids love candy, but candy doesn’t always love kids.
In her piece, “The Price of Sugar“, Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat writes,
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States imports more than 200,000 tons of sugar from the Dominican Republic each year. This makes the Dominican Republic the United States’ largest sugar partner among those countries—including Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador—that signed the 2004 Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). In September 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a report on conditions in the bateyes that found evidence of “potential violations” of the CAFTA-DR agreement. The report cited child labor, forced labor (especially for those at risk of deportation) and deplorable living conditions, including a lack of sanitation facilities and potable water.
The main draw of the day, of course, was the giant sugar sphinx, a mammy complete with headscarf, her prominent breasts fully on display.
According to curator Nato Thompson,
Presiding over the cavernous Domino building in seeming repose, Walker’s sphinx is a hybrid of two distinct racist stereotypes of the black female: She has the head of a kerchief-wearing black female, referencing the mythic caretaker of the domestic needs of white families, especially the raising and care of their children, but her body is a veritable caricature of the overly sexualized black woman, with prominent breasts, enormous buttocks, and a protruding vagina that is quite visible from the back. If this evocation of both caregiver and sex object—complicated by her coating in white sugar—feels offensive, it is meant to. It is part of what Walker has come to be known for.
Tourists with iPhones were gleefully taking turns getting snapshots of themselves in front of the mythical creature known as the North American Mammy. At this warehouse, which will soon be transformed into a “mixed use” space (ahem condos) in the epicenter of gentrification in New York City, the irony was was almost too sweet to bear. Once again, the labor of many, is the blithe amusement of a privileged few. Kara Walker’s work here is definitely done.
If you are in the New York area between now and July 6th this show is a definite must see. For more information head over to Creative Time’s website.