In the soon to be demolished Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn sits a forty ton sphinx-like figure coated in powdery-white sugar. This is American artist, Kara Walker’s latest work – her first foray into sculpture. Walker’s art explores themes of race, gender, identity, violence & sexuality. The New Yorker called her work “a visual conglomeration of poisonous American history, psychic pain, forbidden sex, and sheer artistry.”
The sphinx’s image is all over social media and the mainstream press right now, but to get the true effect, as Eleanor Wachtel says, in the opening to her interview with Kara Walker, you would have to be there, in the cathedral-like space of dark molasses-covered walls, lit by skylights, with the monumental, white regal figure, towering above.
Like most of Kara Walker’s work, this one comes with a long, satirically inflected title.
A Subtlety, or the Marvellous Sugar Baby, a 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.
In creating this piece, Walker’s thinking process wound its way through the linkages between the history of colonialism and the black enslaved body tied up with the commodity that is sugar. What comes from sugar? – the by-product, molasses. What comes from molasses? – rum. Her conclusions lead her onto thoughts of industrialization, pollution, climate change and eventually dropped her into what she describes as a rabbit hole of darkness. She reached the idea of ruin as the final moment for human kind. Walker concluded she needed a less deadly, far-gone image of ruins. The Sphinx came to her – months of research and then a flash of inspiration. Sphinx posed a riddle – it’s essentially us. It is of what we are made – historically, culturally – we are caught up in a cycle much like the desire for the sweetness of sugar. She ran across the words a subtlety and that struck her because all her reading on the sugar trade had been so overt. Sugar sculpture spoke to her of this subtlety. Ironic, as the sculpture is so massive. But size was demanded; the piece had to fit the location. The vast space of the sugar factory is part of the sculpture’s power.
The sugar sphinx dominates; there is no seeing her all at once. To view her people must move around her. She becomes Goddess rather than slave due to her scale. Her face is African-ish strong. It’s iconic, stereotypical and archetypical, it’s problematic. She is reminiscent of mammy figures coupled with an austere, starkness and power. The artist admits to wanting it all. She’s white rather than black because it was important that she be coated with this refined sugar. The power and meanings embedded in the whiteness are potent, a part of our contemporary psyche. We tend to equate whiteness with refinement. Molasses has been equated with plantations, slavery, the body of blackness, slow, coarse, never moving into the invisible space of whiteness – always less than. Refined sugar has no body attached to it. It’s ubiquitous – like whiteness.
The Dominion Sugar Factory will eventually be demolished and so, too, will the sculpture. Part of the process, which the artist describes as in keeping with the piece, is its sacrifice.
Please listen to the CBC Ideas podcast of Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with artist Kara Walker to hear in full the artist’s first-hand description of creating this stunning sculpture.
I also suggest a reading of Isabel Allende’s novel – Island Beneath the Sea – to augment your consideration of Kara Walker’s piece. Set against the merciless backdrop of sugar cane fields in Haiti, Allende crafts a story of a black slave woman’s determination to claim an identity for herself. If this book doesn’t break your heart, nothing would!
If you’d enjoy hearing more about Allende’s journey to write Island Beneath the Sea tune into another great CBC podcast on Writers & Company.