Photo Essays

What Does Kara Walker’s Sugary Sphinx Tell Us?

by Hrag Vartanian on May 9, 2014

(All photos of Kara Walker's "Subtlety" by the author for Hyperallergic)

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” at Domino Sugar Factory (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

One of the season’s most anticipated art events will finally open to the public tomorrow. Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” aka the “Marvelous Sugar Baby,” which comes with the substantial subtitle of “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,” is the renowned artist’s first public artwork.

karawalker-subtlety-12-320The piece is situated in a highly contested space in Williamsburg: the former Domino Sugar Factory, a site that’s become a lightning rod for discussions about post-industrial urban identity, the moneyed forces of gentrification, and the uneasy relationship of arts patronage and developers. Once one of the neighborhood’s leading employers, by the beginning of this century, when artists, musicians, writers, and urban professionals were slowly beginning to outnumber blue collar workers in Willliamsburg, Domino had become a symbol of the city’s industrial past that was never to return.

Situated on the waterfront, developers have long been eyeing the attractive and large site in an area developing beyond its working-class roots at lightning speed. Once New York may have turned away from its coastline, but today — even post-Hurricane Sandy — people are lining up to buy condos, walk on boardwalks, and take ferries on the city’s waterfront. As recently as 2006, many in the neighborhood have fought to turn the Domino site into a cultural complex or other public facility, but the city, under the guidance of developer-friendly former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has been largely uninterested in doing anything but seeing it redeveloped. It is now slated to become a multi-use development that will include commercial space, condos, some affordable housing, and a public boardwalk. For many longtime area residents, the Domino plan represents the city’s cultural amnesia, a desire to scrub the neighborhood of its history — the factory was also the site of one of the city’s longest labor struggles, when, in 2000, 250 workers went on strike for 20 months.

Plans for the development of the Domino Sugar Factory site (via SHoP Architects)

Recent plans for the development of the Domino Sugar Factory site by Two Trees (via SHoP Architects)

For Walker’s installation, the long industrial chamber of the Domino complex, which is slated for demolition by its owner, Two Trees, is dotted with children sculpted mostly of sugar products; they, in turn, are carrying baskets of sugar and other saccharine concoctions. And off on one side of the cathedral-like space is a glowing white sphinx, clearly constructed of blocks of sugar. It’s worth mentioning that Two Trees’ owner, Jed Walentas, is on the board of Creative Time, which is the organization that commissioned Walker’s “A Subtlety.”

Walker’s work doesn’t explore any of the site’s recent past, focusing instead on the shadowy history of the sugar industry in the Americas and its reliance on slave labor for centuries. The Domino Sugar Factory has been a prominent fixture in the neighborhood since it opened in 1856 (though the current building dates to 1882), and by the 1890s it was producing half of the US’s sugar. When it opened, the building was the world’s largest sugar factory, but by 2004, when it closed, it was a ghost of its former self.

As the New York Times reported last year, the history of sugar in the United States, and even the process of refining it, is a sordid tale:

In the earliest days, much of the sugar arriving at the Havemeyer family’s refinery on the Williamsburg waterfront had been harvested by slaves. It was mixed into a dirty slurry, boiled in enormous vats and filtered through charred animal bones.

Then it was “whipped, beaten, flayed, hurled into ‘grain,’” The Illustrated American magazine reported in 1894. “The process is very wild and terrible, like a caged cyclone.”

Life in the refinery was so infernal that The New York Tribune declared in 1894 that a worker had only one hope of escaping “perpetual torture.”

Knowing this charged history, the Walker installation comes across less as provocative and more like a temple-like tribute to ancestors, relying on its impressive scale (the sphinx measures 35 feet high and 75 feet long) for most of its impact.

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The use of the sphinx image is oddly seductive. The figure, which is derived from racist mammy imagery, is an obvious thumb in the eye to an industry that enslaved millions. The sphinx is displaying the “fig gesture” with its left arm, which is a symbol that can mean both good fortune and “fuck you,” depending on your cultural perspective. Walking behind the sphinx, her genitals are prominent and, along with her feet, beautifully sculpted.

Walking through the space, you’re left considering the history of sugar and its role in class and culture. The title, “A Subtlety,” refers to the medieval taste for elaborately sculpted sugar treats that marked the beginning or end of a course. Is it perhaps ironic that Creative Time hosted their annual gala in this same hall? Is this the end? What comes next —condos?

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Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” (aka the Marvelous Sugar Baby) is organized by Creative Time and will be on view at the Domino Sugar Factory (S 1st Street and Kent Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) until July 6.

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Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • Carlo Grassini

    I am NOT happy to enter this discussion: Why NOT happy? Because there have been discussions I have tried to enter on Hyperallergic & I suspect, do to certain policy guidelines, my comments were deleted. So be it, you ask for comments, and this is America, where freedom of the press is permitted, I attempt once again: In this particular case, “Kara Walker’s Subtely”: I want to hear what Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have to say regarding this work of art.

    I would also like to add my brief comment: if a non-white artist had created this sculpture Al Sharpton would be the first to make a loud and clear criticism in regard to stereotyping and ridiculing the American-African cultural ethic.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      If you follow the commenting guidelines, there’s no reason not the comment.
      In response to your points, I think the question revolves around the question of whether we live in a post-“identity” US, and I don’t believe we do. The cultural background, sexual identity, and class of a person does matter. In this case, Walker has been using many racial stereotypes in her work for over a decade and she has been exploring their meaning, particularly related to her own heritage and history.

      • Carlo Grassini

        Unfortunately Hrag, when an artist or a viewer seeks to “explore meaning” in a work of art the end result is more often trite than not. When was the last time you asked the meaning of a tree?

        • Lunhil

          This work is no less evocative than Norman Rockwell’s painting of the little girl being escorted to school in the Jim Crow south. When images like this are taken at face value such as a simple photograph of a tree then you might have an argument. Your opening statements prove the value of works such as this; in my mind it opens volumes of thought on my American culture.

        • http://www.artisabout.com Eddie Arroyo

          Art is an exercise in questioning the meaning of a tree Mr. Grassini.

      • http://www.artisabout.com Eddie Arroyo

        This is what I enjoy reading on hyperallergic more than simply a review
        of the art itself but the social dynamics it currently resides in. I
        live in Miami and love to read about how art impacts a certain regions
        of the world along with the reasons why. Vartanian is correct
        concerning the myth of a post-“identity” US. I feel its a ploy to unify
        everyone under a utopian and passive form of consumerism and capital.
        For if we are all the same and our history and identity does not matter
        then as a collective we become much easier to manage and shepherd.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Kara Walker is “non-white.”

      • Carlo Grassini

        Thank you for the correction Jillian, my error has been corrected.

    • Jennifer Russell

      But, they didn’t make one.

    • tharpo

      You are so right. I would have recommended brown sugar, it would have been more authenic

  • Beau Toutant

    I think Kara Walker’s Subtlety is fan-freaking-tastic!!! I only hope I get to view it in-person. In my mind, Walker can do no wrong. (I don’t give a damn “what Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have to say”. If you really care, ask black women what they have to say about “stereotyping” in the work. I believe, frankly, in-your-face “stereotyping” is the point and the very strength of the piece. Duh.)

    • Beau Toutant

      One more thing…only Kara Walker can make a female backside, with tucked feet, look adorable and strong at the same time! That might be the most appealing artistic rendition of female genitalia I’ve ever seen.

      • http://www.danangelistudio.com Dan Angeli

        This is a breathtaking experience Beau Toutant. I hope you get to see it in person.

        • Beau Toutant

          I hope so too, Dan.

  • Floofius Bunnius

    I really appreciated this piece. It balances a critical celebration of Kara Walker’s latest tour de force, and doesn’t shy from an intelligent picking-apart of the Domino site, TwoTrees, and Creative Time. Thanks.

    • Beau Toutant

      ‘looooove your moniker! Floofius Bunnius aka Fluffy Bunny

    • Brian Fernandes-Halloran

      wow i just had that exact discussion about this writing. great minds think alike and apparently can have silly names too :)

  • disqus_EeeQ5F8oU2

    What the hell good is tongue is cheek? Walker’s piece is no better than what she imagines herself criticizing. It is big for the sake of big. It is constructed of a poisonous non-biodegradable material, coated in highly refined sugar, harvested from the Dominican Republic, modeled after a monument built by slaves, playing host to the greedy transition that has come to define the neighborhood. Slaves were sold by their own people, just as Brooklyn’s waterfront was. Who wants the cheap sugar, the SUVs, the pretend luxury housing, the Fresh Direct? F the 80’s already! Drill a whole in Hirst’s shark tank, drink the fluid, let the animal decay!

    In the name of the Havemeyers, via Metropolis Books & Habitat for Humanity ‘Design Like You Give a Damn’. Build humanely, sustainably, beautifully!

    • fairalways

      Non-judgmental question: how familiar are you with the neighborhood, the builders, and whether they are supporting the neighborhood, and whether they have the neighborhood’s blessing? Are you aware of neighborhood attitude toward the “humane, sustainable, and beautiful”?

      • disqus_EeeQ5F8oU2

        The Domino Effect documentary explains much of its rezoning difficulties.

        The neighborhood no longer exists and its character is gone. What existed there was driven out by the real estate gold rush resulting from the 2005 rezone, which paid little attention to the Community Based Plan 197-a, towards which much local time and effort was dedicated. The non binding Points of Agreement resulted. Of the many important points there is one that should presently be of concern to everyone – the monitoring line item, as much has changed since the rezone (population, Sandy).

        Sustainable is a pretty word for efficient. Who doesn’t want that when it comes to GINORMOUS projects?

        Beauty is more difficult to define.

        • fairalways

          Thanks. I’m forwarding some of this along to my sister and brother-in-law, who are from the area (long time), to see if they have anything to add or subtract.

      • disqus_EeeQ5F8oU2

        In fact there have been countless local efforts regarding sustainability. Here’s to the Toxic Avengers!

  • Sonny Moon

    It’s racist and sexist all at once!

  • fairalways

    PS As one who worked out of a shop on Meserole in the late 80’s, who used to hang out on no-longer extant, decrepit pier at the end of Java in Greenpoint with the junkies and the homeless, who remembers a time when few New Yorkers -the likes of today’s (easily manipulated?) passionate- gave a rat’s ass about Domino.

    Did you know that Two Trees was the biggest donator to building the hydroponic greenhouse on the roof of PS 84? I have no skin in this game; I don’t even live in NYC anymore. But I do know propaganda when I read it. Especially this passage, of which I’m unsure of all the politics, and I’ll bet most posters here are as well (I’ll bet it’s much more complex. My sister has lived near there for years, and I’ll bet has more insight than the writer of this story.):

    “As recently as 2006, many in the neighborhood have fought to turn the
    Domino site into a cultural complex or other public facility, but the
    city, under the guidance of developer-friendly former Mayor Michael
    Bloomberg, has been largely uninterested in doing anything but seeing it
    redeveloped. It is now slated to become a multi-use development that
    will include commercial space, condos, some
    affordable housing,
    and a public boardwalk. For many longtime area residents, the Domino
    plan represents the city’s cultural amnesia, a desire to scrub the
    neighborhood of its history…”

    “http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCcQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.greenpointnews.com%2Fnews%2F5830%2Fps-84-greenhouse-project-honors-reyna-levin-lentol-and-markowitz&ei=XYNxU4vyHqXlsASQoYHwBQ&usg=AFQjCNEsTGoM503oLTGIqp24zr2x_Lxlkw&sig2=g6_owgb5bwnHSZsnfFUc0g&bvm=bv.66330100,d.cWc

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      Anonymous commenter. *yawn*

      • Beau Toutant

        Um, just an aside. Some of us have very legitimate reasons to be anonymous. (Mine being: not embarrassing family members!) Also, previously, some moderators on this site have been known to “research” commenters, lodging fashion criticism on the same. So…don’t judge too harshly.

        • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

          You should not be anonymous. I’ve told you that before. And it is only fair that people who criticize others are open to scrutiny. Otherwise their comments are not taken as seriously. I am waiting for you to “reveal” yourself.

          • Beau Toutant

            I appreciate your sentiment. Not all commentary is “criticism”, most ‘merely discourse. I prefer my comments “scrutinized” purely for their content so I choose a nom de plume.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      The writer of this story has lived in the North Brooklyn for over a decade. He has both context and insight.

  • Juz

    “A Subtlety”??!!!? This art is so tedious and obvious and just a one-liner.

    Naked Black Person = Sugar Slave-Trade = Slavery is Bad.

    That’s it folks! That’s all she’s trying to say. THIS IS SO SAFE. Who would question whether or not slavery was bad?

    This is all just a gift to developers and the 1% who need the sanction of “art” to feel hip and connected, while increasing property values even more.

    When I lived around here in the late 80’s and 90’s there were real people still working at the Domino Sugar factory — mostly Hispanics and whites. Now they are ALL out of work — where’s THEIR sugar sculpture? That would be too dangerous to portray because that would point out the obvious fact that this development has eradicated them. But black slaves — that’s politically safe, ancient history. And how is this art?

    • Marga Ballester

      I agree….lets make it multicultural….everyone who worked there has taken some kind of experience from this Domino Factory! Now we need a hispanic or white artist to express their own version!! This is Kara Walker’s version……I am just learning about her through this article and will go to see her exhibit……..to find out if its worth it or not!!
      Nevertheless, there is so much to learn thru an artist’s work regardless of their background, etc. At the present time the city seems to be developing in every space they can fit a highriser or complex…….is it good for the people and the economy???
      Lets hope that this affordable housing is worth a reasonable price for those of us that cannot afford high rent in the city!!! I don’t like politics, however, need to live with it!!
      God bless America!!!

    • J andrewC

      I would agree with you that the imagery is obvious, but it is the same imagery that she has been using for years, so it should not come as a surprise. I would say that, and correct me if i am wrong, I think it is her first three dimensional work. So this seems to me more of a realization of her two dimensional work in 3D.
      Without seeing and experiencing it in person, i cannot critique the piece itself. It would appear to be a sculpture and a setting that one would have to visit before making a critical opinion.

      • tharpo

        Love the little sugar babies for their scale and poses, but really think the “Mama” is a monolith where size does not increase its artistic value. Tired of her extreme representation of the African American face….time for her to move on as the country has.

  • BAX-NYC

    This is a genius exhibition in that it’s visually provocative, technically quite clever and powerful in its historical narrative. The narrative of slavery in the 21st century is saturated and to reinvigorate the story in a visually commanding way is a testament to Walker’s significant talent.

  • towerofbabel

    I wonder if the sugar babies will be sold individually to museums and private collectors?

  • Ema Bell

    My heart breaks when I see this installation. The vastness is overwhelming and history is devastating. In the warehouse alone I can cry over my lost ancestors. But when visitors come and make obscene gestures by the breasts , vulva, or the the little sugar children holding bodies of other sugar children I begin to see how privilege has it’s own chains. Slavery hurt everyone. Especially those who can only see the joke and not the blood. What say you Kara Walker?

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