The first thing that hits you when you enter the defunct Domino Sugar Factory for Kara Walker's monumental installation is the smell. It's the sickly, sweet stench of old molasses sweating from the walls and dripping from Walker's sugar sculptures. It's the smell of rot. It's the smell of decay.
And it's a fitting smell for an installation that commemorates (in part) the death of the Domino Sugar Factory, slated to be demolished and replaced with a swanky apartment complex by the Two Trees development company. Kara Walker's piece, with its mouthful of a title, 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, collapses histories. It folds together the systematic slave labor that was the backbone of the sugar industry, reports of severe labor strikes at the Domino Sugar Factory up until the 2000s, and the unstable face of the urban fabric. But instead of flattening, the effect is exponential, taking on infinite meanings.
What runs through these histories is a binary of black vs. white. Black slaves harvested the sugar for white elite (the title A Subtlety comes from subtleties, sugar sculptures traditionally created by European royal chefs), and with the destruction of Domino, gentrification threatens to bleach the neighborhood. True to most of Walker's work, the racial themes are anything but subtle.
The figure that's been tweeted, Instagrammed, and blogged about since the Sugar Factory opened its doors to the public is the centerpiece of the show: a giant, white sphinx, covered in 160,000 pounds of sugar. The sphinx bears a mammy head, Aunt Jemima scarf, and all. Kara Walker loves the horribly jaunty. From her drawings to her infamous cut-outs, her cartoonish shapes gleefully commit atrocities. Just like A Subtlety, something sweet becomes sickening.
Many writers have pointed out that the sphinx, who crouches with her vulva dangerously (and innocently) exposed to predators is making the "fig gesture" with her left hand, a sign that has represented everything from fertility, to good luck, to "fuck you." But the sphinx's enlarged hands also remind me of another white sculpture that's heavy with historical meaning, and it's not the Egyptian version.
Like Walker's woman, the Abraham Lincoln Memorial sculpture also holds his enormous hands out in front of him. Abe's fingers form "A" and "L" in sign language—his initials. While Lincoln is protected by a Doric peristyle, the sphinx's columns are the foundation of a factory with a wrought past. As Roberta Smith writes in The New York Times, "the columns also cage her."
Comparing the Abraham Lincoln Memorial to A Subtlety may not pin down the fig gesture's meaning, but intentionally or not, Walker's monument stands in response—but not necessarily opposition to—this symbol of America. A Subtlety is doused in the history of slavery in America, something that Lincoln was so famously against. The difference is that only the memory of A Subtlety can live on, since it will be removed after July 6, while the Lincoln Memorial lives permanently on The National Mall in our nation's capital city.
In the Domino Sugar Factory, a long passageway approaching the sphinx is spotted with sugar and resin cast sculptures of boy slaves, and unlike the bleached queen, these are made from raw, brown sugar. They carry bushels of bananas and baskets of cracked sugar that glisten so temptingly, you want to lick them. They're like the jewel Abu can't keep his hands off of in Aladdin, and the Domino Sugar Factory is truly a Cave of Wonders, about to be torn down by greed.
It's possible to liken A Subtlety to such tales and legends, because the work is filled with histories spun into mythic proportions. Like the writings of Toni Morrison, who uses supernatural tales and backcountry superstitions to reveal truths about the history of black communities in America, Walker dips into our national imagination to dig up this magical creature. And just like the baby ghost that haunts Morrison's house in Beloved with its dark history, The Marvelous Sugar Baby and its history of oppression haunt the Domino Sugar Factory.
Kara Walker's installation at the Domino Sugar Factory is free and open until July 6. Visiting hours are Fridays 4-8 p.m. and Saturdays 12-6 p.m.