Kara Walker’s Sphinx An Unrealised Proposal To Honor Mammies

Kara Walker Artlyst

Upon entering the disused Domino sugar factory, in New York the first thing you notice is the smell. It’s pungent, acrid, and forces a sensitive nose to wrinkle slightly. A little further in, you encounter the cherubic countenance of a pre-pubescent black boy clad in a loin cloth and holding a basket like he’s making an offering. He is slightly exaggerated in scale because he’s larger than he would be in real life, standing almost as tall as an average adult. This subtle manipulation of scale sets up a narrative. He’s oozing and melting because he’s made of raw molasses, disintegrating into a black gooey pool at his own feet, and given the impending inevitability of New York’s sweltering summer heat you can’t help but wonder when a plague of flies will infiltrate the dusty air space, or if the molasses is going to reach boiling point to form bubbles and pop in your face. The kid, literally, looks sickly sweet but is disconcertingly menacing.

You notice another boy, and then a dozen or so more, some with baskets, some carrying small bales of sugar cane on their shoulders, dotted around forming a trail to the main focal attraction: a great looming sphinx-like creature, a black woman prostrated on all fours donning a mammie’s headscarf, a symbol of American female slavery, her gargantuan naked buttocks raised expectantly, cupped by her subserviently-postured feet and exposing an equally gargantuan vulva. She’s 75.5 feet long, 26 feet wide and 35.5 feet high and covered in four tons of pristine, bleached white sugar. She seems passive, almost expressionless save for her clenched left fist where the thumb is neatly tucked in between the index and middle finger. The pose is tragically submissive and the absence of clothing transgresses the border from nudity to nakedness, but the insinuation of her hand gesture, magnified umpteen times in scale appropriates her god-given right to her dignity, underscoring the indestructibility of the human spirit.

Massive steel structural beams of the Domino sugar plant seem to frame the creature as if in a cage. Visitors mill around, photograph her, contemplate her, take rude selfies poking at her butt, bemused, nonchalant, or snickering like Lilliputians around a trapped Gulliver, dehumanizing her, reinforcing the notion that she’s an animal in a zoo. The profusion of responses is equaled only by its numerous visitors making it one of the most talked about public artworks in New York.

The sphinx is Kara Walker’s realization of an unrealized proposal that lawmakers in 1923 had put forth to honor the “mammies” which had been approved by the Senate but later died in the House. The title is “A Subtlety”, and subtitled “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 work transcends cultural and historical specificity in addressing not just the legacy of slavery in American culture but opens a dialogue into the nature of human dignity in general. This is where Walker’s “subtlety” lies. She achieves this by evoking disconcerting feelings in the viewer, making allusions to sexuality, desire, voyeurism, oppression, abuse, curiosity, repulsion, fear, ridicule, and a host of other associations, by choices as simple as her use of materials and scale. The sphinx’s sugar-coated private parts, like her nipples for example, look like the topping of frosted cupcakes. The colossal derrière incites embarrassment and prompts lewd and disrespectful Instagram photos. She’s a black woman who is literally whitewashed, as are many of the history books dictated by western hegemonic control, and therefore making it too facile to merely pin this down to an issue of race but of humanity instead. It seems to say that body maybe subject to the hand of its oppressor but the human spirit is indestructible, easily refuting suggestions that this work has sacrificed some of the gravitas of her earlier, so called crueler oeuvre. The potency is contained within its stillness and its subject matter extends beyond itself.

As symbolic act, Walker has literally sugar-coated history, but the magnitude of human cruelty can’t be forgotten, no matter who its victims are.

“A Subtlety” is at Domino Sugar Factory, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn NY until July 6th.



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