Kara Walker Installation at Domino Sugar Factory

A friend of mine who was visiting from Los Angeles suggested we go see the Kara Walker installation at the old Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on Saturday.  It was a great suggestion.  First of all, the weather was ideal, so waiting in the very long line to get into the exhibit was much more tolerable.  It was a long line, but progressed quickly.  I’m not going to expound on the show itself because I am not inclined toward writing all that much.  If I could describe in words what I experience then I would probably be a writer instead of a photographer.  But since I am a photographer I will simply share the images I took.  But I have included in this blog an excerpt from  Nato Thompson, Chief Curator at Creative Time.:

“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.

As Walker has 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. Typically for Walker, they are both racist objectifications and strangely cute and compelling.
Walker’s work is also about sugar and the history of its production and trade. It is a story of slavery and a triangular trade route that ensured a sufficient quantity of slaves, of industrial power, our contemporary culture of overconsumption, and much more. In fact, in researching sugar as she developed the work, Walker looked at thousands of years of history (as evidenced by her use of a sphinx). The heart of her title, A Subtlety, refers to sugar sculptures that adorned aristocratic banquets in England and France the Middle Ages, when sugar was strictly a luxury commodity. These subtleties, which frequently represented people and events that sent political messages, were admired and then eaten by the guests. Perhaps Walker’s Subtlety is just a little less subtle.

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. Looming over a plant whose entire history was one of sweetening tastes and aggregating wealth, of refining sweetness from dark to white, she stands mute, a riddle so wrapped up in the history of power and its sensual appeal that one can only stare stupefied, unable to answer”.

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