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Kara Walker in New York
Kara Walker’s big sculpture made of white sugar will stand vigil over the Domino Sugar Refinery’s final days, as it prepares to undergo gentrification’s own refining process, via the wrecking ball.
“Whatever she wants, make it happen,” Creative Time’s President Anne Pasternak advised her chief curator, Nato Thompson. With a talented team at the ready and 30,000-square-feet of raw space in a former sugar refinery, it is little wonder that the internationally acclaimed artist, Kara Walker, was like a kid in a candy store.
Following her first visit to the space, she stayed up late into the night sketching, ultimately concocting a monumental sculpture meant to embody the enormous weight of contradiction in a space with such complex ties to the triumph and tarnish of industrial agriculture.
Never one to gloss over history’s sticky bits, Walker is best known for her cut paper silhouetted scenes depicting the white slaveholders and black slaves of America’s antebellum South engaged in highly sexualized, violent interactions. One look at her 35-foot tall, 75-foot long creation, a mammy-sphinx with knotted head kerchief, ample curves and large lips, reveals that it is not a far jump from the cotton to the sugarcane fields.
Presiding over the cavernous Domino Sugar Refinery that at one time produced more than half of the sugar consumed in the United States, it is only fitting that Walker’s big black mama be made of white sugar. A totemic testament to our collective light and darkness, the Marvelous Sugar Baby will stand vigil over the refinery’s final days, as it prepares to undergo gentrification’s own refining process, via the wrecking ball.
For Creative Time, a New York-based non-profit dedicated to realizing groundbreaking public art projects, Kara Walker and the Domino Sugar Factory have been a dream pairing several years in the making. “One of the selling points for me was the plant itself, along with this amazing history of sugar and its attendant legacies of slavery,” Walker told the Brooklyn Rail. Addressing the refinery’s fraught industrial heritage, with its processing of both materials and bodies from the Caribbean and West Africa to the Americas, A Subtlety Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby fearlessly takes on its past, as its monumental subtitle—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—reveals. It is a history that is never far beneath the surface, much like the tar-colored molasses that still drips from the factory’s ceiling when it rains.
Walker’s mammoth subtlety is sculpted from foam blocks that have then been dusted with over 5 tons of sugar. The work’s title references the foodstuff’s luxurious past, when Medieval courts presented intricate sugar sculptures known as “subtleties” to their guests. Thanks in large part to slave labor, sugar has since gone from luxury to the white opiate of the supersized masses. Transforming the Domino into an Egyptian temple, the Sugar Baby is, in Walker’s words, “a new world sphinx,” replete with undertones of slavery, sex, bloated excess, and the portent of a decaying empire.
Walker is no stranger to using blacks and whites to discuss the unseemly grays. Contrasting the whiteness of the Sugar Baby, thirteen little black boys, each 60-inches-tall, parade before her with baskets and bunches of bananas. Made of cast resin or sugar, these molasses-coated minions are enlarged versions of ceramic blackamoors still made in China. Each of the \banana boys is in effect a giant lollipop molded of over 300 pounds of sugar, a material that proved so fragile that two of the five statues crumbled during installation. Their fragmented bodies now eerily lie in the other boys’ baskets, like cannibalistic offerings for their canesugar queen.
Sugar Baby is indeed no prim Aunt Jemima, and seems fully aware of the delights of the flesh. With arms stretched in front of her and legs curled like haunches beneath, the sphinx unabashedly displays her breasts, and plump buttocks for all to see. Her left hand, its thumb thrust between the first two fingers, perfectly proclaims her mysterious nature in a gesture that alternately represents fertility, or an obscene gesture. While it is unclear whether Sugar Baby is solemn, seductive, defiant, or demanding, there is no doubting that she is in charge.
“There is a feeling that things don’t just go away, and that this molasses has been oozing down these walls for a hundred years or so.” Walker says. She hopes that those who experience A Subtlety will help to preserve the memory, with all its attendant complexities, long after the sphinx and her temple been reduced to ruins. Standing in front of the Sugar Baby in a jacket emblazoned with the face of King Tutankhamun, Walker is the perfect pharaoh to her witness-baring sphinx. With meaning hanging in the air as thickly as the smell of molasses, the artist leaves her workunmediated by explanatory wall texts. Keeper of riddles, the Sugar Baby stares silently on, reminding us of all that will be lost—and all that cannot be erased—when the Domino is finally toppled to make way for a $1.5 billion empire of condominiums that is to be confected in its place.