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The Subtleties of Kara Walker's "A Subtlety"

By Lucinda Holt

Photo by Lucinda Holt

True to form Kara Walker provokes, moves and inspires with her latest art installation, “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.” Walker has taken this idea of a subtlety or an ornamental confectionary design and created a mammifed sphinx with her butt thrust into the air. While there is nothing subtle about this sphinx, critics and bloggers have spent a lot of time analyzing and drawing delicate distinctions about what the Sugar Baby means. Given all the attention she has received, we had to see her for ourselves.

Photo by Lydia HoltThe title of Walker's work captures so much history—history that can feel a bit abstract—until you walk into what remains of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant and are confronted by several sugar or slave boys and this massive sphinx. As we make our way toward the sphinx, we notice the slave boys bearing baskets. One of us wonders if there is a hint of obsequiousness in the faces of the sugar boys. But it's difficult to make anything of their expressions because they have started to dissolve. There is something gruesome but also childlike and playful about these children in various states of disintegration. We couldn't help but think of all those slaves worn down by cutting cane, milling cane, cooking, baking and being served up as human treats.

Photo by Lucinda Holt

The boys lead the way to the sphinx, which is both majestic and so very vulnerable with her breasts and vulva exposed. When we walk behind the sphinx, there are her feet nestled under her bottom. They seem tender and strong—and again, exposed. When do you see the soles of another person's feet? They were as intimate as her bottom and vulva. And there we all were—looking. I couldn't help but think of Sarah Baartman on display and the sexual violence visited upon black women. This is something that we as a nation don't talk about, but it's one of the big things Walker's “A Subtlety” seemed to personfiy for me.


Photo by Lucinda Holt

The day a couple of us visited the installation, there was a group, “We Are Here,” who had encouraged people of color to come out and experience the installation and then react to it by writing their responses on sheets of newsprint set up just outside of the exhibit. They wanted to capture people's reaction to the work—reactions that went beyond the familiar objectification of a black female body. This objectification is not new, and even while we were there, we saw two girls taking photos where they appeared to be holding or pinching the sphinx's butt. Some might say this is harmless fun. But this isn't the only response to Walker's work. Below are a couple of the responses recorded as part of the “We Are Here” project:




While there is no “right” response to Walker's latest work, we were glad that these responses, which most of us don't hear everyday, were captured and contributed to the conversations people were having as they walked away from this art installation, thinking and talking about our complicated history with slavery, sugar and sexuality.

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