Interview by Antwaun Sargent (@Sirsargent)
Kara Walker, the American artist, at the request of Creative Time, has shifted her vision from cotton fields of the antebellum south to the sugar cane fields of the Americas, and it’s all on display at the old Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg. As is her tradition, the artist has subversively titled the work, 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. And there is nothing subtle about it.
A Subtlety spans much of the 30,000-square-foot refinery. The focus of the work is a sphinx-like figure adorned with a mammy kerchief tied around her head, breasts-exposed, proceeded by 15 five-foot-high sculptures of young boys, covered in molasses, with fruit baskets of unrefined sugar. The sphinx is more than 35-feet high and is sugar-coated white, towering over the molasses-drenched walls of the old factory. It smirks at the imperialist nostalgia that gives way to the repurposing of the factory's interior to fit the Williamsburg of today, and the eventual erasure of the bittersweet past. The sphinx-like mammy figure evokes the history of the sugar plantations and the slave labor, exploitation, and politics associated with sugar’s manufacturing from raw, brown sugar cane into pristine white crystals. One can smell the sweetness in the air.
The sugar-coated sculptures are a departure in technique for Walker, but the work is unmistakably hers. The underlying themes of race, power, and sexuality that span the 44-year-old artist's work remains. Walker has made a career out of recasting America's racial past into a confection by constructing hauntingly large room-size tableaux of black-and-white cut-paper silhouettes that explore the tensions surrounding master-slave narratives of victimization, power, and sexuality. All that and much more is on display at the factory.
Here, Kara talks about the process of creating A Subtlety, identity politics, and the history of sugar.
I wanted to do this because I wanted to have my fears challenged out of my body.
Can you talk about how this project came to be?
Anne Pasternak and Nato Thompson from Creative Time approached me last year and seduced me by explaining that the room was full of molasses, and I should come and take a look. And [when I saw the space], it was really big with these huge puddles of molasses water on the floor. It was much stickier than it is today.
Why was the fact that the walls were covered in molasses seductive?
Without thinking through it too deeply, I think there is a molasses-sugar connection to slavery. I think it has this kind of tar resonance. There is this feeling that things don’t just go away, and that this molasses has been oozing down these walls for a hundred years or so. It never dries completely, and it stays alive, which makes this space much more potent and magical.
Did you suddenly settle on this particular piece?
I had eight months or more fussing with different ideas. It’s a huge space, so it produced a lot of anxiety and fear. I wanted to do this because I wanted to have my fears challenged out of my body. Although it’s painful, I enjoy the process of trying to think something through and arriving at a conclusion that feels in line with my way of looking at the world—with my own voice and the voice of my work. I approached the space with basic pencil drawings, and then with power point sketches. I did some reading and investigation into the history of sugar and parsed out what was interesting to me in this vast, thousand-year history of sugar in the world.
In thinking about your interest in sugar, or what was interesting about it to you, how did we get this sphinx-like sugar-momma?
This is the one question I don’t know how to answer, because, you know, a lot of artists don’t believe in inspiration, necessarily. There was actual work that went into producing this, and I was constantly generating ideas.
Two things happened, one was reading about the history of sugar in a book called Sweetness and Power. Sidney Mintz talks about the thousand-year history of sugar. In the early sections, he describes the Medieval fashioning of sugar, called subtleties. He talks about the subtleties as a medieval dish that appeared on the tables of the rich. A subtlety is a political sugar sculpture. They were scenes rendered in sugar paste that the nobility and the guests of the king would recognize as something that had political or religious importance. They were eaten as a desert or in between meals; there was this beautiful, poetic gesture.
I really like the idea of the allegorical, mythological sphinx as this woman-like creature or guardian of the city, the keeper of the riddle, the devourer of heroes.
I was like, "Oh, a subtlety!," because I don’t really make subtle work. Then I decided to make a sugar sculpture. It was a face-palm kind of moment, of course I was going to make a sugar sculpture. It’s a big sugar factory that has been producing sugar. This whole building in itself is a sugar sculpture. I wanted to do something iconic; it’s a public work. It doesn’t have to be so obscure for only an art audience. A popular audience can recognize it. A sphinx is easily recognizable, but whether or not she is actually a sphinx is actually up for debate, I guess. I really like the idea of the allegorical, mythological sphinx as this woman-like creature or guardian of the city, the keeper of the riddle, the devourer of heroes.
Since this is a public work, how did your process differ from previous projects and pieces?
It was entirely different. It was deeper. It was richer, because there was more writing on it. That's a funny thing to say, because I do feel like I have a populist streak in my gallery and museum shows. The thought process that was different for me was arriving at this conclusion. Oh wait! This is like a gift! It's not like a history lesson or me excoriating people of the present about the sins of the past. This is like a gift for families on their weekends out to come and have both the quality of a thing that’s really big, powerful, and uncanny that contains all of these histories I’m interested in—ancient histories and more contemporary histories. It's like a new world sphinx.
Let's go back to some of the histories you are interested in. Some of your previous work, or the narratives that come out of your previous work about slavery and labor, challenge what we know popularly in history books about the south and slavery. Does this sculpture have connections or parallels to that work for you?
I think it has connections to that work and to the history of slavery. There is also something about the continuing presence of the commodities produced by slavery, which are produced in circumstances that aren’t too different from slavery.
In some ways it’s also like the craving for cotton, right?
Yeah! But the sugar craving is particular in a way, because it is so ubiquitous. Sugar is like cotton in the way that people don’t really think about where it comes from or who’s making it. But in this situation with sugar, it is so innocent and associated with sweetness. I don't think that refining sugar to the whiteness that is desirable has been questioned for a long time. Refined sugar has all this meaning in it, and it goes back to The Crusades era and the Medieval era when it was such a luxury and so hard to make it that white.
Domino donated 80 tons of sugar for the project, and we used about half, which means that we have 40 tons of sugar left over.
You said that this is a public work, and when families come in, they can experience the quality of it being so grand and large. Do you think they will understand this history, or is that even the point?
I think that some of it will be understood. I refuse to make an explanatory text, because there are a lot of things that can be said. These little worker boys are made of sugar fashioned with molasses, and they have this kind of relationship to the sugar sphinx. The dynamic between them carries some of the meaning about labor, child labor, and our ingestive reliance on sugar.
It’s strange because as even as I say that, I have this strange reverence for sugar now, as I am aware of the complications and contradictions in my wanting to eat it. It feels like a holy substance because of the lives that have been lost in the production of sugar and the limbs that were lost 300 years ago. It happened in sugar mills in the Caribbean, in the exportation of raw sugar out of the Caribbean, and in the industrial centers in the U.S. to refine it.
This space, the Domino Sugar Factory, has a storied history. This building is going to be torn down, and one of the things I think about is how the sphinx is kind of smirking. There is this quality where she is looking into the future, where this building won’t be here, and your piece won’t be here; there is this kind of erasure. Did you think about that when you were creating the piece, because you have lived in New York for quite some time? Has your New York changed?
I have only lived here for 12 years, so I always feel like a newcomer. The erasure is this amazing, terrible part of the city, and there is something about this kind of acceptance. I feel like this piece would be kind of tragic if she wasn’t smirking. I want for her to dominate this place long after the building is gone, so somehow she becomes legend in this location, as does the building and as do many other parts of the city. It's not necessarily landmark by plank but landmark by memory and by the re-telling of residents and visitors who bore witness to her arrival and departure.
Does that imply what Bell Hooks and others call an imperialist nostalgia?
For the space or for the sphinx?
I mean, a longing for Domino to remain, for the memory of this factory?
I think it’s a longing for the complications that this factory represents. The scale of the piece is meant to embody the enormous weight of the contradictions at play. It's the dominating spirit of New York and of America, or this will to power, while at the same time calling for its destruction.
I went with white sugar, because when I was working with it, the sun came out and it was blinding.
The sphinx is hand-coated in sugar. Did you coat it yourself?
The pieces were cut by machine initially and brought into the space. There was a team of many who finessed, carved, and cut away until we had exactly the shape I wanted, then we started applying layers of sugar solution that was basically sugar and water. Domino donated 80 tons of sugar for the project, and we used about half, which means that we have 40 tons of sugar left over.
Was there a personal moment, when you were coating something that has African-American features?
It’s not really about the color. It’s white partly for aesthetic reasons, since it's in a dark space. What is this relationship we have to whiteness in culture? What does whiteness actually mean or represent? Does it harken back to these notions of whiteness being pure and beautiful and literally refined?
It's funny and ironic that her face looks African or has African features, lips, a nose, and a kerchief. The reality is that I played with different kinds of sugar for a while. There were so many different choices to make, and I went with white sugar, because when I was working with it, the sun came out and it was blinding.
Does that bring it all full circle for you?
I went to the Domino Factory in Yonkers to watch how it happens. You see the sugar go from brown to white when you see the molasses pulled out of it. It’s fascinating and terrifying, like something out of a Ralph Ellison book.
The sphinx is laying there in a way that is sphinx-like but also, because she is female, is there a gender commentary here, about sexuality?
There is a great term from the colonial era about the “sugar tit.” It was basically a pacifier with a little bit of sugar in it. I remember reading Gone with the Wind, and the mammy character says, "Give her a sugar tit." There is something that dovetails with the mammy type of image, the mammary glands, and her image of being made of something consumable and desirable. Her position appears both dominant and submissive, but she is so large that she could only dominate.
Is the scarf also a connection to the mammy character?
There is a little bit of a connection there, but in my initial sketches, she looks more sphinx-like in an Egyptian sense. I needed to position the work in the new world. It's this kind of headdress that's not a King Tut or Arabic sort of headdress; it's a kerchief with the Aunt Jemima tie.
It’s keeping with my work that is sometimes reduced but has quadruple meanings. The hand gesture means good luck and fuck you.
The other thing that completes the paradoxical ambivalence of her body is this symbol on her hand which is a figa. In Portugal or Brazil, you will find these wooden, carved hand symbols with the thumb through the four fingers. Depending on where you come from, in Portugal it’s a good luck charm or for fertility, and in other places, it means "fuck you." It is also a crude name for a woman’s genitalia, which is also very present on the back. It’s keeping with my work that is sometimes reduced but has quadruple meanings. The hand gesture means good luck and fuck you.
Because you thought about this installation for months, and since it’s a public work, do you think this show will be considered less controversial than some of your previous work?
I wouldn’t count on it being less controversial. I think there is a play on dominance here, on my part. I have been making an effort in my own practice to own, understand, and undermine the intended readings of the mammy, picaninny, or Uncle Moe kinds of caricatures. I really do want to understand how a modern black woman might become archetypal and contain all the paradoxes of information created by others.
You talk about the modern black woman, and what comes to my mind is Lupita. We are having such a moment with her, and the Saturday Night Live Leslie Jones skit, where she called herself a Mandingo. Do you feel there is always this kind of mammy figure lurking behind the African-American female?
I don’t want to reduce it to just the mammy figure that’s lurking behind there. There is this whole cosmology, this whole pantheon of caricatures, but not just black caricatures. There's a very American set of caricatures who are informative about the ideas, ideals, mistakes, and goals of this experiment that the new world represents—the experiment that has gone wrong.
After a show like this and after working at a scale like this, what is next for Kara Walker?
Who knows? I’ll have other things. This is one of those moments where after working the collaborative way I did, figuring out how to build things no one has, and working with sugar at this scale, I now know that the possibilities. I don’t always have to cut something out by hand and exhaust myself that way. I know that given a good deal of time and goodwill, I’m capable of doing whatever the hell I want.
Visit A Subtlety through July 6, 2014 on Fridays from 4-8 p.m. and Saturdays & Sundays from 12-6 p.m for free.