There’s really nothing subtle about Kara Walker’s masterwork “A Subtlety” at the derelict Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. Before the factory, and its history, are removed for urban development (yes, condos), Kara Walker has contextualized and commented on the history of this factory and sugar manufacture as a whole.
The sugar-mammy-sphinx rises four stories high in the sticky sweet remains of the factory. The architecture clamps her in place, and her noble bearing, with its inevitable comparison to Egypt’s Sphinx, here is sexualized with enormous breasts, a distended rump, and visible vulva. Her facial features, accentuated by the head cloth, are stereotypical, exaggerated, and bulbous.
She is at once vulnerable and proud, caged and powerful.
With this figure made of sugar-coated polystyrene blocks, Walker has pinned a biting statement on the cost of sugar and sugar production, in terms of slavery and the devastation of a people. It’s her send-off for the blighted behemoth on the waterfront and its connection to the historical sugar trade.
And as a piece of art, it has a huge visceral effect. I knew I was in the presence of something great. Its here-ness also makes the issues it provokes seem topical and timely in today’s diverse and more tolerant society. History is today, Walker seems to say. Pay attention.
Domino donated 160,000 pounds of sugar for the project. The figure sits in a nest of granulated sugar, and yet the sculpture diffuses over time. The features are no longer as crisp as shown here. Who knows how much will be left of it when the exhibit closes July 6?
The approach to the sculpture is via a long walkway, with the figure radiating at the end of the dark, molasses-stained corridor.
You walk past many sculptures made of molasses, showing children at work in various stages of production.
You promenade past these larger-than-life-sized children, working for our sugar pleasure. They stand in puddles of molasses as if melting away in anonymity, becoming one with the other key ingredient of the production process.
So the figures, both the large and the monumental, are ever changing in this environment of continuing decay. It’s as if Walker says these issues are not statically stuck in the past, but continue to effect us today. They must be acknowledged, interpreted, and kept relevant so we can choose a different path.
Subtle this is not. Compelling and haunting, it is.