WILLIAMSBURG, Brooklyn – The experience of Kara Walker’s latest work, A Subtlety or The Marvelous Sugar Baby, staged in an abandoned Domino Sugar refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, begins well before you enter its dilapidated, molasses-encrusted battlements.
Walking from Bedford Avenue amid a glossy stream of high-rise apartments, stylish cafes and restaurants, you quickly realize that its location in a community that has recently undergone its own dramatic ‘refinement’ is anything but coincidence.
This intuition is confirmed when Walker, bedecked in a metallic, sleeveless jumpsuit, posing in front of the gigantic 75.5 foot long, 35.5 foot high sphinx-like sculpture that is the centerpiece of A Subtlety, explains that she “chose the image of the sphinx as a symbol of empire. ”
She adds that “staging it here feels like the final outpost of an empire in decline.”
Today, Williamsburg is regarded as an extension (and perhaps the final frontier) of the young and creative New York of yore, while simultaneously coming to epitomize the problematic phenomenon of gentrification, which like the process of refining sugar often has the same whitening effect.
When you actually reach the factory, you’re hit by the sickeningly sweet scent of molasses that hangs heavy in the air and clings to the factory walls. You’re then confronted by the first of a procession of 13 disturbing, big-headed, child-like figures molded after collectible tchotchkes, carrying in their arms and on their back the raw materials ostensibly used to erect the blazing white sphinx coiled at the far end of the 30,000 square foot factory. These figures drip (or weep?) under a thick coat of molasses as they slave away, threads of what could be blood pooling at their feet.
Following this macabre trail, your gaze remains fixed on Sugar Baby’s monumental proportions as they take shape under the overhead skylight. Head held high, back arched, hands planted firmly on the ground and ass up, as it were, Sugar Baby resembles the stereotypical black mammy (replete with head scarf), and embodies in her at once powerful and sexualized repose the complex figure of the Negress that features prominently in much of Walker’s larger body of work.
Since her 1994 Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart, Walker has been celebrated and criticized for her arresting tableaus of the antebellum South, constructed from paper cut-outs that form caricatures of a range of racial stereotypes of the period engaged in phantasmagoric scenes of sex, violence and general mayhem.
While A Subtlety marks an expansion in the artist’s oeuvre of materials — the sphinx sculpture is constructed of Styrofoam blocks coated with a thin layer of white sugar, the laborers of resin and molasses — Walker continues to work within the same vocabulary of imagery, antagonizing racial constructions and stereotypes by reproducing them, albeit this time in 3-D.
However, compared to Walker’s other works, which typically contain an array of players, in A Subtlety, the image of the Negress and the politics of the black female body accordingly take center stage. Walker’s silhouettes act as “both an invention and a citation … whose sheer vitality and obscenity reanimate and darken racial stereotypes” as Robert Reid-Pharr cites in his essay, Black Girl Lost. Similarly, with A Subtlety, we see Walker’s critique of American racial constructions take shape by reanimating and subverting racial stereotypes specific to the black woman.
By way of background, the Negress as defined by Annette Dixon in her essay The Negress Speaks “is the ambiguous figure of the slave mistress, who rivals the master’s wife for his affections.” As represented in Walker’s previous works, An Abbreviated Emancipation, The Means to an End – A Shadow Drama in Five Acts, and a host of other scenes, the Negress’ motivations, like the riddles of the sphinx, remain a mystery. She is represented at times as victim of sexual exploitation and violence, at times as participant, and at other times as nurturer. This same ambivalence and active resistance to easy, heroic and therapeutic depictions of blackness in art and in the understanding of black history that characterize Walker’s work can be seen in the duality of Sugar Baby’s at once regal and subjugated pose.
Supine and naked, it would be perhaps too easy to dismiss Walker’s representation of the black female body in A Subtlety as degrading, although surely some of her critics will. And to be fair, when you skirt around to the back of the sculpture and confront Sugar Baby’s cartoonishly apportioned buttocks and vulva, one is also forced to confront the highly sexualized images and stereotypes of the “big bootied black woman” that saturate so much of pop culture and dominate the American race-psyche.
It also feels important to note the discomfort that happens – for this person of color, anyway – when a group of predominantly white art-goers laugh and smile while taking pictures in front of said “big black ass,” conjuring the atmosphere of side show act or tourist attraction. To not at all address these tensions feels like missing the point and at the very least missing out on Walker’s wicked sense of humor.
Nonetheless, the command with which Walker’s sphinx presides over her audience when viewed from another angle (figuratively speaking) cannot be gainsaid, humbled as you are by the very scale of this production and the ceremonious emptiness of the cavernous hall. Whatever the tensions, this figure of the Negress, the Mammy, the black woman is here elevated to goddess in the image of the sphinx, representing the very source of her empire’s power while simultaneously subverting the power structures that undergird the racial stereotypes her image recalls.
This echo chamber represents classic Walker and supports Reid–Pharr’s assertion that “black American subjectivity is an incredibly complicated matter.” While you will likely leave with more questions than answers, you can witness Sugar Baby hold court until June 6th, after which the old factory will be demolished, becoming but a memory like many empires and cultural institutions before it – and contained within its enigmatic silence.
Chase Quinn is a New York based culture writer. Follow Chase on Twitter @chasebquinn