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Bittersweet: Kara Walker's "a Subtlety" at Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn

Kara Walker's "a Subtlety" art exhibit

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The saccharine creations of Kara Walker sure know how to pack a punch.

exterior view announcing exhibition by Creative Time featuring Kara Walker
Audra Lambert

For her current installation "a Subtlety" on view at the former Domino sugar factory site in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the artist exhibits imagery redolent of slavery and the sugar trade in the Americas. Life-size figures of young slave boys constructed from resin and candy, coated with molasses, flank an impressive larger-than-life figure identifiable as a black female slave displayed as sphinx, covered in white sugar. This project, realized by an organization focused on public artwork, Creative Time, was specifically created for the former sugar factory. A second layer of historical reference, above the obvious link to the sugar trade and slavery, is the idea of "a subtlety": during the Middle Ages, confectioners would create luxury items with bearing this moniker from sugar for special events. Thus, these specially constructed sugar figures can be seen as presented upon special occasion to the guests of this crumbling, dilapidated factory space.

Entering the space the first presence is not of the sculptures themselves, but the overpowering smell of brown sugar lingering from the former processing plant. After signing a waiver recognizing the factory's state of disrepair, guests are ushered into the space in large groups. Eyes adjusting to the low light level, the surrounding walls, floor, even ceilings bear brown stains from the sugar processing. Scattered across the space, creating a trail that leads to the distant sphinx sculpture, stand lifesize figurines of young African-American boys carrying baskets and bananas. These images of child slaves are decorated in sticky molasses which has dripped to the floor, creating trails of sticky sweetness. This combination of sweet and sinister is a recurrent theme throughout Walker's oeuvre. Observing the youthful sculptures, the boys' blank eyes disinterestedly survey the crowd, with some gazing up toward the sphinx figure ahead. Approaching the white sugar sphinx-slave figure, the viewer pauses to marvel at the large-scale work. The gigantic towering figure of over-sexualized slave "mammy" Kara has created is unnerving both in size and silhouette. Her facial features are stern and unrepentant, her gaze from blank eyes surveying an unknown crowd with total defiance. Kara has made no apologies with this sculpture, as the figure's expression presents a challenge to onlookers asking: what can you critique about me? The entire gesture is a critique as the figure's oversized bosom and rear are grotesque, responding to both the objectification of women's bodies and the roles female slaves played during this dark chapter of American history.

This is a formative exhibit for Kara as she and her assistants managed to transform these 30+ tons of white refined sugar coating digitally sculpted Styrofoam bricks into a stunning and provocative work. Over a three-month period the team constructed the main sphinx figure, based on a clay sculpture Kara had previously sculpted. The transformative power of the work is evident in visitors' rapturous inability to look away, lingering to observe the figure. Creative Time has tapped Kara here to comment and she more than rises to the occasion. Commenting on the need for labor to produce sugar over time, from the time of forced labor through to early industrial workers in this abandoned factory, the artist calls into question society's standards for labor practices and the lack of recognition paid to those former slaves who sacrificed so much for the convenience of a comfortable majority. The sweetness of life for a few was compounded by the bitter experiences of so many.

Kara Walker is best known for her continuing work with wall decal silhouettes, initially earning her a MacArthur "genius" grant. These silhouettes portray delicate cutout works with an elegant style depicting grotesque, stereotypical figures from the bygone era of slavery in the United States, Kara's work attacks themes of racism and prejudice at full speed. She is represented by Sikkema Jenkins gallery in New York City.