Kara Walker is an artist best known for her cut-paper silhouettes and animations based on her explorations through race, gender, identity, history, and power. Most often, her dark cutouts, which are placed starkly against white walls, reflect the harsh truths of slavery in America. Her visions, fantastical in illustration, confront the viewer with grotesque wit and evidence of cruelty.
Walker’s newest installation is a bit different. It still circles with her past subject matter, but it presents her ideas in a different manner. The sculptures inside the plant reference the luxurious sugar sculptures showcased during banquets in the era of King Henry V and the period of triangular trade (slaves, sugar, and rum). Adding another layer of complexity, the installation is held in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory, which opened in 1856 and was once the largest sugar refinery in the world, and has, in more recent years, been left to rot as an abandoned New York landmark. Like a last hurrah for the history of the modern age, the building looms over the edge of Williamsburg, very soon to become luxury condominiums. The space and the exhibition, together, representative of the nature of progress in all its various forms.
As you approach the massive shell where the installation is held, the sweet and pungent smell of aging sugar fills the air. Upon entering the facility, you become distracted by the impression that parts of the decaying building might start falling down around you. Remnants of the building’s historical past are evidenced by sugar piles on top of columns and behind walls, as well as the discoloration of aluminum paneling caused by years of caramelized sugar stains. Scattered about the room are fifteen oddly charming, oversized molasses sculptures of doll-like boys carrying what seems to be offerings for the massive refined sugar figure at the end of the room. Modeled after cheap souvenirs found on Amazon, these fascinating cherubs appear to be melting in the sunlight pouring in from the windows above, creating small streams of syrup on the dirty floor.
The main event of the installation sits quietly, surveying all that encircles her. The four-ton sugar-coated sphinx, measuring some 75-feet long and 35-feet high, donning a handkerchief (and an exaggerated and exposed vulva), is the combination of two racial stereotypes: the “mammy” caricature, as well as a satire of the highly sexualized black woman. Additionally, in furnishing the sphinx with similar features as the artist herself, the piece offers subtle commentary (intentionally or otherwise) on the idea of “Kara Walker the American Artist,” a massive entity in her own right.
It’s a heavy, emotionally-loaded, beautiful display–built both in harmony with its surroundings, as well as in direct conflict. (Domino Sugar Company itself was one of the sponsors for the exhibition. Curious, indeed.) Beneath the snow-white, sugary facade lies a darker historical context. Walker’s exhibition asks us to dig deeper, through the annals of time and oft-forgotten, sour struggles that lead to sweeter progress.
The exhibition is open May 10-July 6 (Closed July 4th)
Open Fridays 4–8pm, Saturdays 12–6pm, and Sundays 12–6pm.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Burton/Getty Images.