IN EARLY MAY of this year, Kara Walker presented her most recent work, her first sculpture, to the public. Occupying the soon-to-be-demolished Domino sugar refinery in Brooklyn, home to an infamous 20-month labor strike in 2000, Walker’s piece is entitled: 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. Inside and throughout the refinery stand 15 five-foot-tall statues of black boys, some made of resin, others of sugar, in addition to the mammoth figure that swells to fill the far end of the space, a black woman, coated in white sugar, naked but for her kerchief, crouching like an ancient sphinx.
Since opening on May 10, much of the public conversation surrounding Walker’s current work has concerned the dynamics of spectatorship. In a sense, this was intentional: Walker and Creative Time — the organization that approached the artist about creating a piece for the Domino factory — actively encouraged visitors to share their photographs with a #karawalkerdomino hashtag, all of which will be aggregated and rendered as an interactive 3D digital sculpture. So seeing the Marvelous Sugar Baby was always also going to involve seeing it through the eyes of others. And with a piece like this, and with an artist like Walker, any conversation about seeing and spectatorship is a conversation about seeing and not seeing race.
In a Gawker article, Stephanye Watts describes how her emotional and serious confrontation with this emotional and serious work was interrupted by the yelling, jeers, and provocative gestures of viewers, predominantly white, a response to the work captured and disseminated on Instagram and Twitter. Disheartened but not entirely surprised, Watts asks, “Where’s the respect? How do you not realize that you are currently standing on sacred ground and staring the sickness of our country dead in the face?” Calling attention to these spectators, Watts shows that there are many wrong ways to view Walker’s art, many ways to fail to adequately acknowledge it. Which leaves us with the question: is there a right way to view it? What does it mean to be present to this work?
The controversy and spectacle of spectatorship has been part of the reception of Walker’s work since her earliest shows in the mid-1990s. With its sentimental silhouettes of stereotyped figures enacting visceral scenes of racial and sexual violence, the work itself was always complicated and challenging. The question of who constituted her audience was also always part of what made her art controversial, and became part of the work itself. For instance, the speed and enthusiasm with which she was embraced by a mostly white art establishment — she received the MacArthur “Genius” grant only three years after graduating — troubled and angered some black artists and academics. There was deep concern over the fact that white audiences seemed too ready to celebrate a young black artist whose work made use of racist and retrograde imagery. As artist and vocal critic Betye Saar asserted in 1999, “I felt the work of Kara Walker was sort of revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves, particularly women and children; that it was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment.” And artist Helen Evans Ramsaran asked her readers, “Why are stereotypes such as mammies, coons, and piccaninnies so pleasing to whites especially when drawn and presented by a black artist?”
Some saw Walker’s use of these characters and vignettes as an empowering form of reclamation and incisive reiteration, and argued that appreciating and analyzing the relationship they developed with their audience was essential for understanding the art. In her monograph on Walker, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw writes that “[Walker’s] silhouettes encourage involvement and interpretation, making for an interactive art form in which the racial and cultural specificity of the spectator takes primacy.” In other words, there is no way to neutrally encounter Walker’s work — the images and histories it invokes will always provoke some dialogue with the specific imaginaries and histories of those who look on. Even indifference expresses a relation.
A Subtlety continues to insist on this dialogue. With her older, most familiar work, it was as if the shadows of a collective forgetting were burned onto the walls, silently occupying a time and space quite out of reach to the viewer. (Though Walker complicates this in Darkytown Rebellion, where projectors cast visitors’ shadows on the walls to interact with the silhouettes.) The figures’ lack of features makes them seem distant and unknown, but their familiar shapes make for an uneasy moment of recognition, an awareness of some ancestral link with their time and their place, and the contours of that moment depend on who exactly the viewer is.
While Walker’s silhouettes are captured on walls, leaving the viewer to move in and occupy the space, A Subtlety brings these figures into the material world, granting them volume and life. Her shadow figures are relegated to the edges of the world, which the viewer must approach; the characters of this newest work seem almost to approach the viewer unbidden. They command the space in a new and startling way.
The Domino factory is very tall and very long. One arrives at the southeast corner and enters facing the short end of the rectangular space. To the right, and far at the other end, sits the massive white figure, framed by various structural beams and brilliant in the natural light. If she had been the only figure in the factory, the viewer might simply walk from one end to the other, and in so doing render the factory itself an inconsequential element of the exhibition, a mere vessel. But as Walker has arranged it, the space between the entrance and the sphinx is occupied by the child-sized sculptures of black boys, and they slow the visitor down, directing attention down to the sugar-sticky floor and over to one’s fellow visitors, up to the rafters and out through the skylights. Thanks to their presence, the factory, and the ambivalent role it plays in the history and future of Williamsburg, itself becomes a character.
The boys are modeled after racist memorabilia that Walker found online — “they’re very goofy,” she has said — some hold baskets, others bananas, and all of their faces are tilted and smiling. As I learned from a volunteer, half of the boys are made of resin, a sturdier material that will last the duration of the exhibition. The others are made of fragile sugar, and are in an ongoing process of disintegration, their bodies slowly giving out under the strain of standing. When I visited, some had lost their arms, which lay in crumbled and liquefying heaps by their sides. Walker returns regularly to collect the bits that have fallen and deposit these body parts in the baskets of the others, facilitating a kind of cycle of living death.
And then there is the Marvelous Sugar Baby herself, presiding over the space, the gravitational pull around which all orbit. She is 35 feet tall and 75 feet long, naked and leaning on her elbows and knees, a fist and a fig sign out front, back arched, feet tucked, breasts and genitalia exposed. With her pronounced features and her kerchief, she presents as black, but she is pure white, made of 160,000 pounds of refined sugar, which slopes away from her onto the floor. She is a site of contest between racist and non-racist conceptualizations of power and personhood, representing a whole host of European-American projections, associations, and history: now a strong woman, now a mammy, now a sexualized body, now an animalized body, now a sphinx. While we see her, she is sightless. And yet like the upturned faces of the boys, she seems to address us.
As Kirsten West Savali has written, Walker’s referencing of the mammy figure can be read as a response to and rejection of the nostalgia for the Old South that persists in the form of establishments like Mississippi’s Mammy’s Cupboard, or the “Mammy” monument proposed in 1923 and approved by the US Senate (but never built) that would stand “in memory of the faithful slave mammies of the South.” Walker’s piece, too, is an act of memorialization, an effort it might share with something like a national slave memorial, were there one, but there is not. There is only the 1876 Emancipation Memorial, or the Lincoln Memorial, which depicts Lincoln holding his arm over a now-freed black man who crouches shackled at his feet.
But what are we to make of this Sphinx? What does its presence contribute to this work of memory and forgetting?
The Great Sphinx of Giza was built for the Pharaoh Khafre as a royal tomb, and there are also sphinxes in South and Southeast Asia, influenced by Hellenism. But perhaps the most iconic story of the Sphinx is that of Oedipus, in which the Sphinx had been sent by the gods to punish the city of Thebes for the transgressions of King Laius, Oedipus’ father. Her presence at Thebes was a testament to the violence done by prior generations, and she functioned to insulate the city, severing its relations with the outside world and freezing it in its own time. Famously, the Sphinx would ask a riddle to anyone who passed her. Until Oedipus, none answered correctly, and she ate them. The riddle was this: “What is that which goes in the morning upon four feet; upon two feet in the afternoon; and in the evening upon three?” Oedipus’ answer is “Man.”
What the Sphinx’s question demands, then, is not esoteric knowledge of some exotic creature, but a capacity for self-knowledge, self-recognition, the ability to see oneself in the representations of others. Those who came before could not see themselves in the Sphinx’s question, could not recognize that they were the very subject of the riddle she posed. What the Sphinx knows, her secret, is something one can fail to recognize only because it is so close: it is us.
We might thus see Walker’s Sphinx as demanding this kind of attention to forms of recognition and self-recognition. Her secret is us, and her demand is that we see this. So the myriad ways of being present to this work — the reverence and the seriousness, the waves of feeling, and the callous childishness and irresponsibility — these can all be seen as modes of response to this demand. There is no unified, homogenous “us” here: we visitors and participants are all bearers of the history being evoked in this space, and there are radical differences among us in terms of who bears what, and how much. As Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.” Indeed, the ache, insult, and anger Watts reports in her article is a response to the irresponsible, oblivious viewers who took a “we” for granted and occupied the space of Walker’s work as though they were not sharing it with others, as though that space was simply theirs. In response to the “overwhelming whiteness” of this work’s audience, a Facebook event called “We Are Here” has been formed in the hope of bringing people of color out in large numbers so that, as the group’s page puts it, “we can experience this space as the majority.” So even if the Sphinx addresses all of us, the work keeps the question of who “we” are alive and pressing. As long as this question remains open and contested, so too will the question of what it means to be adequately present to this work.
In interviews about A Subtlety, Walker has said that she wanted to make something “a little more hopeful.” Thus she presents us with another question: what is hopeful about this sugared woman, these shattering boys, and our various and disparate relationships and responses to them?
It is important to remember that hope is not necessarily a happy attitude; hope is often activated precisely when more confident, safe, and trustful feelings have given way. This is what we mean when we “hope against hope.” A Subtletycalls our attention to attention, bringing to reflective consciousness questions of who pays attention, to what, and how. Of course nothing guarantees that such consciousness can be maintained — Oedipus, after all, moved past the Sphinx (who killed herself) into still deeper forms of self-blindness, which in turn blinded him to others. A Subtlety can occasion moments of self-recognition and also refusals of such recognition, both of which stand as answers to the Sphinx’s question. Attention as self-attention. Walker sees hope here.