The ugly truth about our sugar cravings
Kara Walker’s new work continues her exploration of America’s racial history
By Charlotte Burns. From Frieze New York daily edition
Published online: 08 May 2014
Kara Walker is best known for her room-size tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes arranged on white walls and set in the antebellum American South. The contrast between the delicacy of the figures and the depravities of the behaviour they are engaged in, scenes of unimaginable cruelty depicted with bacchanalian abandon, is what gives much of her art its power. For her latest work—a massive sculptural installation opening this week at the disused Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn—she is exploring America’s racial history in a radically different style.
The new piece, A Subtlety, has been commissioned by the public art organisation Creative Time. Its scale is unprecedented for the artist—the central figure is 75.5ft long, 35.5ft high and 26ft wide. The work is mostly made out of sugar and comprises a series of figures, including 15 servants bearing empty baskets and bananas. These boyish slaves are moving towards a giantess at the centre of the piece, naked except for a Black Mammie headscarf. Her sphinx-like physique is exaggeratedly feminine. “I was thinking about sugar and the associations with desire,” explains the artist.
“The space is loaded with history,” she says. “Mention sugar, and slavery comes to mind, as do industry, agriculture, diet and all these issues which are still relevant.”
Before Walker could set foot in the factory, the floors needed to be cleared of “a six-inch layer of molasses. There’s sugar residue everywhere,” she says. “It’s a gritty process to turn sugar white, and that was the only real purpose for the factory. You can have the sweetness without the whiteness, but there was this idea that by becoming white, it also became pure.”
At its peak, the factory was the largest sugar refinery in the world. By 1870, it was producing more than half the sugar consumed in America, and in 1896, the American Sugar Refining Company, which operated the plant, was one of the first 12 companies listed on the Dow Jones.
The sugar trade created a triangular economy: slaves were sold from Africa to the Americas; sugar to New England; and then rum made from molasses was sold back to Africa. “Sugar brought about a new kind of world structure: diets changed, the way business was done changed, there was a rise of the importation of enslaved Africans,” Walker says. The full title of the installation makes this history explicit: A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, 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.
Despite its dark subject matter, Walker’s work usually balances humour and menace in equal measure, her comedy a graveside pirouette. But she struggled to find the humour in this piece. “I got to this place where I was feeling so cruel,” she says. “I didn’t know if I wanted to make a work that only skewered the public in their desire for sugar.” Then she uncovered a description of a banquet held by King Henry V, where “each course was interrupted by ‘subtleties’—sugar sculptures depicting a scene from recent history or a hunt… the history was fascinating but so was the awesome name of these pieces, it brought back the humour. So I’m making a subtlety on a really, really big scale.”
Walker was born in Stockton, California, in 1969 and went to art school in Georgia before gaining an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1997, aged 27, she became the youngest recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Despite the acclaim, the sugar installation is her first large-scale public commission. “Bringing my work to a wider audience has always been fraught,” she says, acknowledging that her art often elicits extreme reactions. In 2012, staff at the Newark Public Library covered up a Walker drawing on loan from a collector in protest at its depictions of violence, which included lynchings, a burning cross and a white man forcing a black woman’s head to his crotch.
The controversy surrounding the work was nothing new. In 1997, an older generation of African-American artists, including Betye Saar, launched a campaign against Walker’s work, describing it as “revolting” because in their view it failed to clearly identify the perpetrators and victims of history, instead operating in a moral grey zone. They asked whether her art betrayed African-Americans for the amusement of the white establishment.
Walker has never let these criticisms sway her. Instead, her changes of direction have been prompted by her own assessments of her motivations. She began her career as a painter, but largely abandoned the practice. “I realised I was trying so hard to become one of the boys,” she says. “I wanted to take a look at that because it’s a problematic dynamic that I’d invested myself in without scrutiny.”
She is still taking on the boys’ club. “Somebody asked me whether the colossal nature of this piece is a kind of power play,” Walker says. “Maybe it is a jab at the notion that scale equals importance.” In any case, the massive installation is not a permanent monument to Walker’s ambitions. “It’s made from a soluble material,” she says. So a year from now, it may not even exist anymore.
• A Subtlety opens on Saturday 10 May (until 6 July). It is open on Fridays 4pm-8pm; and on Saturdays and Sundays 12pm-6pm. For more information: http://creativetime.org/projects/karawalker/
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