A year and a half ago, Kara Walker was asked to create a piece in the old Domino Sugar Factory that was due for demolition in Brooklyn in New York. She created a piece called “Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” “Sugar subtlety” was a term that was used to describe “sugar sculptures that adorned aristocratic banquets in England and France in the Middle Ages, when sugar was strictly a luxury commodity. These subtleties, which frequently represented people and events that sent political messages, were admired and then eaten by the guests,” said Nato Thomson, the Chief Curator of the exhibit.
I am a huge fan of Kara Walker’s work, mostly her life-size silhouettes, originally an 18th century formal art practice used as a cheap way to replace portrait miniatures, transformed in Walker’s hands to depict racism, slavery, and injustice. This sculptural installation in Brooklyn is a massive/ monumental sugar sculpture made out of 8 tons of confectionary sugar over a styrofoam base, depicting a black woman a la “mammy” as a sphinx (her sexual parts displayed from behind). Her eyes are closed. She is mute, but the installation speaks volumes about power and race, slavery, sexuality, women’s bodies, sugar refining and wealth inequity, consumption and greed.
There are smaller sugar sculptures of young boys in the space melting, dripping in the summer heat, holding baskets filled with what sometimes appears as parts of other small children. Here in this twisted sacred hall, the god of sugar is supported by the cruelties of slavery and forced labor. “Basically, it was blood sugar . . . like we talk about blood diamonds today, there were pamphlets saying this sugar has blood on its hands,” said Walker in an interview on NPR.
This piece is dedicated “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.” And this time, the spectators become the living silhouettes against the brilliant white and damning riddle of this sphinx.