MUST-SEE | KARA WALKER’S SUGAR SPHYNX IN “A SUBTLETY” AT THE DOMINO SUGAR FACTORY IN BROOKLYN
Opening this weekend in the long-abandoned Domino sugar refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is a monumental new sculpture and first-ever public art project by reactionary artist Kara Walker. Titled A Subtlety: 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 enormous, very anatomically correct sphinx with the features of a stereotypical black “mammie” character towers within the soon-to-be-demolished, football field-sized facility that was built in 1927 by the Domino sugar company to whiten mountains of raw, unrefined sugar for consumption.
Enabled by the NYC-based public art group Creative Time, the sculpture is constructed of sugar-crusted white polystyrene, contrasting sharply with her exaggerated African features, and attended (guarded?) by a small enclave of slave children (“sugar babies”) cast in actual molasses—the syrupy byproduct of sugar refinement that also covers all interior surfaces of the building and drips constantly down onto the back of the giant sculpture. It’s a phenomenon completely unanticipated by the artist and a great ironic gesture on behalf of the host building which seems to be intent on dying the white sculpture a more naturalistic brown.
While the word “artisan” in Walker’s title is a bit vague, the subject of sugar is certainly in keeping with the artist’s career-long investigation of the historical wages of slavery and racism. Sugar was a key leg of the so-called triangle trade that traversed the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries, as European slavers brought their human cargo to the Caribbean in exchange for molasses, which was then transported back to the Continent to be made into rum. Meanwhile, the “subtlety” of the title refers to historical name of sugar sculptures that once adorned the tables of the rich and powerful in Medieval Europe—which, given the rarity and expense of the substance at the time, were meant as displays of wealth and power by the ruling white European elite.
When questioned about her inspiration for the piece, Walker explains, “Sugar crystallizes something in our American Soul. It is emblematic of all Industrial Processes. And of the idea of becoming white. White Being equated with pure and ‘true’ it takes a lot of energy to turn brown things into white things. A lot of pressure.”
A bit of further and certainly unintended irony manifested at this week’s VIP opening gala party when a majority caucasion crowd of beautiful people and art world cognoscenti swarmed the building, indulging in dining and drinking in an lavish celebratory spread laid out between the sphinx and her sugar babies, further whitening the installation and heightening its not-so-subtle allegory.
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