American artist Kara Walker’s installation 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. The installation offers a peek into the history of the waterfront as it was it the early 1900’s – a haven of large sugar factories along New York City's East River.
According to Creative Time Chief Curator Nato Thompson:
Presiding over the cavernous Domino building in seeming repose, Walker’s sphinx is a hybrid of two distinct racist stereotypes of the black female: She has the head of a kerchief-wearing black female, referencing the mythic caretaker of the domestic needs of white families, especially the raising and care of their children, but her body is a veritable caricature of the overly sexualized black woman, with prominent breasts, enormous buttocks, and protruding vulva that is quite visible from the back. If this evocation of both caregiver and sex object—complicated by her coating in white sugar—feels offensive, it is meant to. It is part of what Walker has come to be known for.
Walker has appropriated racist imagery throughout her career, frequently depicting scenes of intense violence and sex that are peculiarly—and uncomfortably—alluring. As she herself as said, she likes her work to produce a sense of “giddy discomfort.” This is our response not only to the sphinx, but also to the procession of black boys that serve as her attendants. Scaled-up versions of tchotchkes that Walker came across on Amazon, they have big, sweet eyes, and they carry bananas and baskets. Typically for Walker, they are both racist objectifications and strangely cute and compelling.
The Domino Sugar refinery is certainly an integral part of the story of sugar. Built by the Havemeyer family in 1856, by 1870 it was refining more than half of the sugar in the United States, producing over 1,200 tons of the sweet stuff every day. Every bit of the room that hosts Walker’s sculpture is covered in that history. The walls are coated in a thick, viscous molasses; the acrid smell of sugar still hangs in the air.
Walker’s gigantic temporary sugar-sculpture speaks of power, race, bodies, women, sexuality, slavery, sugar refining, sugar consumption, wealth inequity, and industrial might that uses the human body to get what it needs no matter the cost to life and limb.
Creative Time website