#race #gender #gentrification #access #development #labor
Kara Walker’s massive sphinx at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, titled At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: 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 has been recognized mostly for Walker’s hotly debated use of African American stereotypes, and for some hurtful behavior by visitors to the exhibition who Instagrammed obscene reactions to the sexually explicit central figure (no link, Google if you must). Some of this is inevitable. Walker’s work, marked by an oppositional aesthetics and meant to impart a strong reaction, reflects and manifests harsh realities present in the larger world. The experience of her work is raw, and some viewers experience her appropriation of racially exploitative imagery as re-traumatization irrespective of its critical intent. Such an emotional response is certainly valid; however, it is scarcely the main criteria by which the work’s artistic merit should be judged. The disrespectful behavior of some audience members is also an indication that the social codes of nudity versus nakedness of women’s bodies remain more or less intact, over 150 years after Manet’s Olympia brought them center stage. Further complicating responses to the work is the reality of contemporary art and museum attendance (and leadership), which is overwhelmingly white; as well as sponsorship of the installation by Domino Sugar, still linked to profit through the exploitation of black labor; and by the high-rise developer that now owns the site, and whose plans are under challenge from local organizers. As such, Walker’s sphinx represents an anti-slavery political statement that is itself shackled, reliant on entities that actively perpetuate the very exploitation and effacement that her narrative is intended to combat.
Walker’s sphinx is in dialogue with Olympia much as she is with the Great Sphinx of Giza and with the myriad (usually female) sphinxes that appear in Symbolist painting. As she demonstrated with After the Deluge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006, Walker is a student of art history. Her decision to dress the otherwise unclothed central figure in a “Mammy” headwrap relegates the sphinx to nakedness, a woman in a state of partial and thereby knowing undress who has historically been viewed as sinful, while her un-self-conscious, still visually available nude counterpart has been viewed as innocent. Whiteness and blackness are very much a part of this history, best illustrated with respect to the Odalisque tradition in art, which Manet both references and modernizes. Read More »