Sugar Is Not Always Sweet
Kara Walker in New York

There is a sweet smell of decay. That is your first impression when you enter the Domino Sugar Factory. Dark, sticky molasses, a by-product of sugar production, still covers the walls of the factory on the bank of the East River in New York that closed down in 2004. In this industrial cathedral – the building, erected in 1882, was once the world’s largest sugar refinery – Kara Walker realized her first monumental project in a public space: a giant sphinx crouching at the end of one of the warehouses.

A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, as the work is titled, marks a new chapter in the oeuvre of the African-American artist. For Creative Time, a non-profit organization that since 1973 has enabled thousands of art projects to be put in public spaces, she created her first large sculptural installation. Walker, to whom an entire floor of the Deutsche Bank Towers is devoted with works on paper by the artist on display, became known for her subversive silhouettes which repeatedly confront the viewer with racist and sexist stereotypes. Full of rage and humor and very obsessively, the artist (who was born in 1969) investigates the fluid transitions between suppression and lustful subjugation, between power and powerlessness, between perpetrators and victims. Back in 2002, the Deutsche Guggenheim, today the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, presented provocative works by Walker in Germany for the first time in a large-scale exhibition.

Walker’s sphinx has the facial features of an African-American woman but is bright white: the sculpture is covered with 160,000 pounds of sugar. The Aunt Jemima kerchief recalls cliché pictures of black cooks or servants – “mammies” who took care of white families. The nakedness of the “Marvelous Sugar Baby,” on the other hand, alludes to stereotypical portrayals of black women as sex objects. At the same time, the imposing figure has the aura of an archaic divinity. Additionally, Walker refers to the history of sugar. Once a precious luxury good, it increasingly became a bulk article. And one of the pillars of transatlantic triangular trade. Africans were taken on slave ships to sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean. The ships were loaded with sugar and then set sail for Europe, before returning to Africa, where fabrics and weapons were exchanged for slaves. As Kara Walker shows, sugar can have a very bitter aftertaste.  

Kara Walker – A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
Until 7/6/2014
Domino Sugar Factory in
Williamsburg, Brooklyn