The International Writers Magazine: Art in Brooklyn
A Visit to the Sphinx
Walli F. Leff
There’s nothing subtle about the redoubtable Kara Walker’s latest art exhibit, a staggering achievement and one of the most provocative shows in New York City this season.
Not the title:
“At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: 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.”
Not the subject—the huge sugar-refining industry, made possible in large part by the slave trade, which enabled sugar plantations in the Caribbean to reap fortunes from unpaid labor.
Not the location—the gigantic Raw Sugar Warehouse of the now-defunct, one hundred thirty-two year old Domino Sugar Refinery in the Williamsburg factory area along Brooklyn’s East River waterfront.
Not the art.
Emphatically—not the art.
||Walker’s debut into the art world was startling: murals of the antebellum South depicted the horrors of U.S. slavery and racism with caricatured, stereotyped paper silhouettes—those delicate, often frivolous representations so popular in the nineteenth century—engaging in sadistic punishment, sexual violence, lynchings, and other cruel degradations commonly practiced in “our peculiar institution.”
Awarded a MacArthur Fellowship at age twenty-seven, she was the second youngest person ever to receive the “genius grant. ”With “A Subtlety” the dramatic arc of her life and work has leaped from the theatrical to the monumental.
The interior of the mammoth, dimly lit warehouse—longer than an American football field, higher than a New York City brownstone—is coated with sugar and sugar refining by-products. Molasses drips from the rafters and settles in small puddles on the sticky floor. Some of the windowpanes are coated with the brown stuff. Your attention is drawn, however, not to the decrepit condition of the venue but to a gigantic white sculpture poised on a high platform near the end of the building.
|As you head toward it, you encounter fifteen five-foot high sugar-dusted resin figures of young African-American boys, each carrying a basket, positioned at intervals from the entrance to just before the sculpture. Originally these statues were rendered in sugar, but those all-sugar figures collapsed or melted; the remains of that failed experiment were placed in the resin figures’ baskets. Most of the sugar coating on these present figures melted, too. The sheen it produced appears to be the sweat of hard labor.
Sweet, innocent, fierce, driven, exhausted, unstoppable, the statues represent boys who did not pass their time learning to read, write, add, subtract, draw, paint pictures, play hide-and-seek and tag, or throw balls for their dogs to chase. Wrenched from their homeland or born in captivity, they were slaves who toiled all day.
||Just past the last of the boys lies the spectacular, overwhelming “Marvelous Sugar Baby.” Even if you’re seven feet tall, next to her you’re but a miniature doll. A sphinx seventy-five feet long and over thirty-five feet high, she has a racially stereotyped mammy’s face with huge features—protruding lips, a flat nose, and closed eyes. A head-scarf tied Aunt Jemima-style covers her hair. Her hands are poised In front of her large, pendulous breasts. The left hand gives the fig sign of female sexuality—thumb thrust between the middle and index fingers.
At the far end of her body the sphinx’s lion’s feet are curled under a woman’s huge, raised, bare bottom. Her vulva is presented—she is unabashedly sexually available. How does her overt sexual receptivity relate to the power her enormity confers upon her? A sphinx asks riddles. It doesn’t answer personal questions.
The exaggerated, stereotyped facial features declare that this Sphinx is of African heritage, yet she is white to her core—bright white—blindingly so when the sun shines directly on her through the skylight above her. She is crafted from blocks of Styrofoam and covered with tons of refined sugar. The only exceptions to the purity of her whiteness are a few molasses stains from ceiling drips.
Why white? She could have been brown and still made of sugar. Raw sugar is brown.
With this work Kara Walker addresses not only race and slavery, but history, industrialization, and economics, as well. The sugar that ballooned into a profitable industry, present-day addiction, and health hazard is refined sugar—white sugar. The refinement process that brought about sugar’s ascendance to profit, popularity, and bodily threat was controlled by white people. Walker’s white sphinx is a metaphor.
Refined sugar is not a modern invention. In medieval times royal chefs used it to make elaborate sculptures called subtleties for festive meals. The taste for refined sugar rapidly spread to the masses. As the demand for sugar grew, plantation owners brought in more and more slaves to grow more and more crop.
Poorly paid seamen transported the raw sugar to refineries. Overworked, underpaid laborers refined the sugar under dangerous conditions in poorly maintained factories. At least those people had jobs.
The prominent place of sugar in the courtly entertainment of a thousand years ago evolved into its present-day use on ritual occasions. Sugar is virtually a sacrament for some rituals now. The climax of a birthday party is the ceremonial presentation of a cake with candles ablaze, communal well-wishing bestowed through one of the best known songs in the world, a secret wish the honoree must make, embracing magic, faith, or merely hope, before blowing out the candles, and the cutting of the first slice of the confection. No wedding reception is complete unless the bride and groom wield a knife together to cut a slice from a tall, tiered, lavishly decorated cake that they feed to each other to the resounding cheers and applause of family and guests.
These days, however, ritual celebrations are far from the most frequent occasions for refined sugar consumption. The enjoyment of sweet things that most people used to keep under reasonable control has become a craving fanned by seductive merchandising and advertising. Everyday life is sweetened from the time we awaken until the time we go to sleep. The sugar industry shows no signs of going into a slump.
Pre-sweetened cereals, sweetened teas and coffees, soft drinks, chocolate milk, yogurt with fruit preserves, crispy prawns with sugary walnuts, raisin, nut, and dried cranberry snacks, cookies and milk, donuts and coffee, sugared fruit drinks, ice cream and frozen yogurt treats, pie or cake for dessert after dinner, giant-sized candy bars in the movies.
What’s it to you? Sugar in your urine? There’s an alarming increase in diabetes and its complications—heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, kidney disease, neuropathy.
Teeth giving you a problem? Thousands of dollars are spent on crowns, implants, dentures, and gum surgery.
Putting on weight? The obesity rate has zoomed.
Everyone has a stake, personally and collectively, in a healthier society.
As Walker knows with all her artistic being, the story of sugar encompasses the immorality and cruelty of slavery plus much more. We all have a stake in history. The history passed down to us and the history we pass down to others includes the well-being of our fellow community members.
How have the old Domino factory’s workers fared by history’s standards? Many were locals and many local families have lived in Williamsburg for generations. Recently, however, rapid gentrification has changed the neighborhood. The stunning views of the East River and downtown Manhattan, and the easy access from the area to the city have made this melting-pot of a community a highly desirable outpost for the well-heeled.
For this reason, the factory is about to be demolished—a number of the buildings have already been torn down. A real estate development comprised of five towers that will soar as high as fifty-five stories and be devoted to residential and office space, retail stores, and a school will be constructed on the site. Seven hundred of the 2,300 residential units will be set aside as low and middle income, i.e., “affordable,” housing. Real estate pricing being what it is, though, chances are that the Manhattan skyline views will be reserved for the luxury units.
The workers and the company needed each other, but the fit between them wasn’t smooth. Labor relations between Domino and its workers have been famously contentious. In 1999 management made demands that would have wiped out gains the union had won through hard-fought battles over fifty years: to be allowed to lay off one hundred workers, weaken seniority rules, have the right to contract jobs out, end the guarantee of full-time work, reduce the number of sick days, and take away many holidays.
Knowing that, at its Illinois factory Domino’s parent company, Britain’s Tate & Lyle, had locked out seven hundred fifty workers for three years and busted their union, two hundred eighty-four union members walked out in protest. Claiming that “in order to stay competitive in a very difficult market, we need to be flexible and to adopt modern working practices,” the Williamsburg company held firm.
The strike lasted more than twenty months. Despite the radical demands company that threatened the security of all unions nationally, workers received scant support from the labor movement: their parent union had a corrupt past and their local leadership did not promote their case effectively. When the strike was over, many workers did, indeed, lose their positions to modernization. Before the plant was shut down in 2004 dozens of people had been employed for the refining process in the Williamsburg factory. At the Yonkers plant to which Domino’s operations were transferred, only seven were needed to get that job done.
The Raw Sugar Warehouse will be demolished soon after “A Subtlety” closes on July 6, 2014 and replaced with a public park along the river overlooking downtown Manhattan. Come to the shore and enjoy the view. If you find yourself mingling with former Domino workers there, you’ll know you’ve made contact with history.
© Walli F. Leff’s July 2014
psychological thriller, The Woman Who Couldn’t Remember But Didn’t Forget, published by Sunstone Press, is available in both print and e-book editions. With Marilyn G. Haft, she co-authored Time Without Work, published by South End Press. She writes articles on psychology, science, cultural and political affairs, and travel.
REF: NPR (National Public Radio) All Things Considered
Artist Kara Walker Draws Us Into Bitter History With Something Sweet by Audie Cornish May 16, 2014
Life As Art - Ai WeiWei
Walli F. Leff at Brooklyn Museum
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