Does Kara Walker’s ‘A Subtlety’ Sugarcoat a Bitter History?

A massive, rusting remnant of New York City’s industrial past, the Domino Sugar Factory, once the largest sugar refinery in the world, has stood, on the shores of the East River in Williamsburg, empty and dormant for years. Slated for demolition, the Creative Time art organization invited Kara Walker to use the space as the setting for her first large-scale public artwork. Open to the public since May 10, her work is entitled, “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” in reference to the sugar sculptures that once decorated the dinner tables of royalty. Verbosely subtitled “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,” it has drawn long lines of visitors since its opening. But what exactly are they lining up for?

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety”

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” at Domino Sugar Factory (Photo by Vitor P Teixeira)

Inside the vast industrial space, which once acted as the refinery’s warehouse, the walls are stained molasses brown. Sugar, perhaps a century old, remains piled around the tops of beams and rafters. Its smell wafts through the air.

Scattered throughout the vast space are sculptures of children, about five feet high carrying baskets or other large loads, which are made with what appears to be melted and hardened sugar. In shades of deep red and brown, they are just translucent enough as to almost appear to glow. The heat and humidity has caused them to start to melt, and sugar has pooled out around them oil-slick like. Still others have disintegrated so badly, that Walker has thrown their broken pieces into the children’s baskets.

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety”

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” (Photo by Vitor P Teixeira)

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety”

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” (Photo by Vitor P Teixeira)

Farther in is the tour-de-force of the installation–a mammoth sphinx, rising up 35 feet towards the rafters. Made of giant blocks of polystyrene, coated in a thick layer of ultra-white sugar crystals, it depicts a woman with stereotypically black features – large, puffy lips and a wide, flat nose. With a handkerchief tied around her head, she appears derived from “mammy” imagery, but Walker has sexualized her. She kneels forward onto her arms, her immense, bulbous backside lifted into the air to reveal her genitals. In front, her nipples jut forward from her breasts, a state which is echoed in the gesture of her left hand–her thumb protruding from between middle and index finger.

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety”

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” (Photo by Vitor P Teixeira)

What is one to make of all this? “Why do humans crave sweets? Biology or sugar craving [?],” Walker writes in one of her notes for the project, viewable on Creative Time’s website. It is this sort of questioning that has always been at the root of her work. The totality of it can be seen as an attempt to understand how the practice of slavery took hold–is it biology that allowed humans to enslave others of a different skin color, or a learned lust for money? Is that kind of evil and desire to exploit others inherent in us as a species? What does it even mean to be human? The power of her work is that it asks all of these questions while defiantly answering none of them.

The installation marks a departure for Walker, both in medium and in tone. Walker’s work has always been unsettling for the gruesome history it depicts, but also because it manages to depict it so beautifully. While her famous cut-paper silhouettes depict scenes featuring acts of utter brutality, often sexual, these works, on the surface at least, lack that violence. Instead of being drawn from a narrative of violence and cruelty, the work’s main power comes from its sheer scale. It could be said that it is a bit problematic to turn slavery into a spectacle. The children at least, appear strangely cherubic, happily unfazed by their toil. Perhaps it enough that she makes the humanity behind the historically slave based sugar industry visible; but it could just as easily be read as a whitewashing of their exploitation, as a homage to them.

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety”

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” (Photo by Vitor P Teixeira)

The large sphinx in no way appears cherubic. It is a powerfully stoic figure, staring from and through history. It is an embodiment of the entirety of the factory’s past purpose– “refining to achieve the desired whiteness which in the modern mind is equated with purity,” as Walker has written. Its immense size is also a nod to the way sugar changed the modern diet and our bodies. The meaning of its “fig” gesture can be read in many ways. In Brazil, once a major exporter of sugar produced by slaves, carved images of hands in this gesture are a symbol of good luck, and are sometimes worn as talismans. In other parts of the world, it is considered an obscene gesture. Many historians believe that it originally referred to female genitalia.

As a public art piece it is also interesting to note how “A Subtlety” is being received by the general public. A sign, just inside the entrance, invites visitors to share their photos with the hashtag #KARAWALKERDOMINO. It also notes that Creative Time will use these shared digital photos to create an interactive 3D recreation of Walker’s artwork. In the meantime, the images are viewable on their website. They are fascinating to randomly click through, both because some users have managed to capture gorgeous images of the work, but also to see how people have interacted with it. In one photo, two adolescent girls pose gleefully in front of the sphinx. In another, a collage, several women pose individually alongside the statues of children. In one image, the woman appears to be touching the sculpture, defying a sign in another, that clearly states not to touch the work. In another image, two young children pose near a sugar child. The youngest seems to stare up at it in amazement.

(Image from Creative Time's website)

(Image from Creative Time’s website)

(Image from Creative Time's website)

(Image from Creative Time’s website)

Aside from the questions posed by the work, it’s also worth wondering why Two Trees, the developers who purchased Domino, agreed to turn over the factory to Creative Time and Walker. Two Trees’ owner, Jed Walentas, it also happens, is on the board of Creative Time. Is Two Trees hoping the installation will add an artistic cachet to their project, all the better to entice the sort of ultra-wealthy buyers who have the means to purchase work by blue-chip artists such as Walker, as well as waterfront real estate? Or are they just offering a bit of neighborly goodwill to the neighborhood which has already undergone rapid gentrification, as they prepare to complete its transformation from a working class neighborhood, then artistic enclave, to another sleek DUMBO?

Domino Sugar Factory

Outside of the Domino Sugar Factory (Photo by Vitor P Teixeira)

A Subtlety’ is on view Fridays and weekends through July 6 (Closed for the 4th of July), at The Domino Sugar Factory, South 1st Street at Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.