Repository 138: Kara Walker and the Cocaine of Food

Image by Jason Wyche. Courtesy Creative Time, 2014.

Image by Jason Wyche. Courtesy Creative Time, 2014.


This weekend Kara Walker premiers her installation sponsored by Creative Time in the Domino Sugar Factory on the eve of its demolition. The installation is billed as a departure from the artist’s usual highly sexual, dark narratives of antebellum slaves of the South within the confines of the black silhouette. The exhibition promises to be photogenic, as there is a unique hash tag for users to post their selfies and installation shots, which will stream live into the exhibition.

The artist has chosen to pay homage to the workers and slaves who have “brought sugar to our bowls” in the form of a monumental sphinx-like sculpture with the head of Aunt Jemima. The sculpture measures 75.5-feet long, 35.5 feet high, and 26 feet wide. And while she is not a black silhouette, she is very sexy. She has attendants that the artist calls enormous “lollipops”, meaning sculptures made entirely of candy.

Image courtesy of Tod Seelie/Gothamist. (back view of Kara Walker's sphinx-like sculpture at Domino Factory)

Image courtesy of Tod Seelie/Gothamist. (back view of Kara Walker’s sphinx-like sculpture at Domino Factory)

The visual of the stark white sphinx in the dirty, molasses stained factory is indeed stunning and picture worthy. But Aunt Jemima reminds me of the advertising industry and how they misuse the idea of a black woman, and women in general by using it for a bottle of maple syrup. Her breasts and behind reminds me of pop R&B videos, and it’s not clear how using the stereotypical language makes a strong symbolic case for an homage to the repressed. This pop resolution using iconic sweet images on sweet material leaves a bad taste in the mouth with respect to the not-so-pop issues surrounding the sugar industry, factories and labor in general. Perhaps that’s her intent.

The pyramid builders in Giza, which this sphinx alludes to, were worshiped and appreciated in their own right, not so for the modern slave. Factories kill people then and they kill people now. Labor conditions are abysmal at times, the pay is sub par, and historically factories in the US have been filled with whites, blacks, Irish, Mexicans, Indians, Italians, Polish – you name it. Also, sugar has been defined as the cocaine of the food world, it is the number one culprit for obesity in the United States, and 60% more black people are more likely to get type 2 diabetes than white people. These are dirty issues. Why not touch on these highly-political topics in this installation? Could there have been a disclaimer by Domino Sugar Company to not “go there”?

A couple of years ago I found this ad in a National Geographic from the 1960s:

Ad from 1960s "National Geographic"

Ad from 1960s “National Geographic”

This is a stunning declaration from the “Sugar Information” company of the psychological and healthful merits of sugar. This morning I looked up diabetes on Getty Images and guess what picture came up (number 7 in my search of 1,100 results)? Yep:

From Getty Images "diabetes" keyword search

From Getty Images “diabetes” keyword search

So with these issues hitting the black community so hard, why wasn’t this part of the conversation in such a magnificent installation? I believe Kara Walker is entirely courageous with her previous work, and wonder where that chutzpah went. Her exploration of white oppression is very clear in her other work, and done with such grace, humor and bile. I wish she made something terrifying with this sweet material. Instead I just look forward to seeing the pictures of the installation – the large busted Aunt Jemima Sphinx sculpture with strangers on an instagram feed.

In all fairness the artist has called the work a “subtlety” which is a play on words – they were actually sweets eaten by wealthy classes, and it’s also a way of being which is very different than her not so subtle previous works.

At the very least this exhibit inside the factory will allow viewers to peer into the private lives of big business. I’m sure that mixing the high art of Kara Walker with the everyday drudge of a 132-year old factory will be bittersweet to consider.

For further reading, there is a very elegant QA in the Brooklyn Rail of the artist and Kara Rooney.

Walker’s official title of the piece:
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

Kara Walker
 A Subtlety
May 10–July 6, 2014
Domino Sugar Factory
Kent Avenue at South 1st Street 
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Hours: Friday 4–8pm, Saturday–Sunday noon–6pm

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