Kara Walker’s giant sculpture at the Domino factory ruin in Brooklyn is the art work of the summer. It is formally titled “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”.
The “Marvelous Sugar Baby” is a 35-foot-tall figure suggesting a black woman as sphinx that evokes racial and sexual stereotypes. Think Mammy or Aunt Jemima conjoined with primitive Venus figures or other sexual cartoons.
It suggests the Great Sphinx of Giza and other sphinxes of art, pondering questions and prophecies. The figure appears to show a sense of erosion by wear and time. As a oversized figure inside a huge structure it can also read as sacred statuary in a temple: Athena in the Parthenon or Lincoln in white inside his memorial in Washington.
It is about the process by which dark sugar becomes white refined sugar at the hands of dark people working for white people. In the Caribbean during slavery the process meant literally working slaves to death.
But it also touches on many other meanings of sugar and race. A sphinx with the head of Aunt Jemima, the piece teams with plays on racist clichés. The face is “mammy” in all her complex cultural roles. (Aunt Jemima, one of the oldest American household trademarks, goes back to 1893 but continues to exist–refined and almost undetectably racist—at least by comparison with Washington Redskins or Cleveland Indians team garb.
The back of the Walker figure also possesses dramatically animal haunches and genitalia. I thought of David Bowie in man/dog guise on the Diamond Dogs album cover. The figure could be sibyl as well as sphinx, one of Walker’s sketches suggests.
It recalls a classic overscale American roadside attraction, notably Mammy’s Cupboard near Vicksburg, Mississippi, photographed by Edward Weston in the 1930s. After a while, so much white sugar also suggests so much granulated salt. The salt of tears and sweat by the workers, a woman of salt like Lot’s wife, or the desert salt flats.