Going to see Kara Walker’s ‘Subtlety?’ Read these first.


Artist Kara Walker’s installation ‘A Subtlety’ is sugar-coated — with an estimated 40 tons of sugar — at the Domino Sugar factory in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

Should you find yourself in New York this summer, one of the things that’s been heralded as a must-see (and must-smell) is the mammoth sphinx sculpture artist Kara Walker has created in the Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn. You’ll probably wait for about 20 minutes; Walker’s piece, free to view, is commanding lines that stretch around the block. But once inside, you’ll find not just Walker’s mammy sphinx but smaller, disintegrating sculptures crafted from resin and covered in molasses.

People cue up to see “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” by artist Kara Walker, on display inside the former Domino Sugar Refinery, located in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, Saturday, May 17, 2014. Four tons of sugar were used to create the 35-foot-high sphinx-like sculpture.The head of the large sculpture wears a kerchief and slightly exaggerated African features. Her breasts are exposed and her fists are thrust out, described by Walker as both submissive and domineering. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
People queue up to see ““A Subtlety.” (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Walker’s installation is called “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.” It’s 35 feet high, and it took four tons of sugar to create. The installation closes July 6. Afterward, the refining plant will be torn down. (Medieval sugar sculptures were known as “subtleties.”)

NPR’s Audie Cornish spent time with Walker in the factory, which resulted in a piece for All Things Considered:

She’s doing what she does best: drawing you in with something sweet, something almost charming, before you realize you’ve admired something disturbing. In this case, that’s the horror-riddled Caribbean slave trade that helped fuel the industrial gains of the 18th and 19th centuries; a slave trade built to profit from an insatiable Western market for refined sugar treats and rum.

“Basically, it was blood sugar,” Walker says. “Like we talk about blood diamonds today, there were pamphlets saying this sugar has blood on its hands.”

She explains that to make the sugar, the cane had to be fed into large mills by hand. It was a dangerous process: Slaves lost hands, arms, limbs and lives.

“I’ve been kind of back and forth with my reverence for sugar,” Walker says. “Like, how we’re all kind of invested in its production without really realizing just what goes into it; how much chemistry goes into extracting whiteness from the sugar cane.”

 


Kara Walker poses in front of her installation “A Subtlety.” (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

Like Walker’s “Subtlety,” these novels were inspired by Caribbean slave trade and the way it affected the women of the West Indies. Though by no means a comprehensive list, here’s a jumping-off point:

The Book of Night Women,” by Marlon James

Significant parts of “The Book of Night Women” are, understandably, very difficult to read. Rape, torture, murder and other dehumanizing acts propel the narrative, never failing to shock in both their depravity and their humanness. It is this complex intertwining that makes James’s book so disturbing and so eloquent. Writing in the spirit of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker but in a style all his own, James has conducted an experiment in how to write the unspeakable — even the unthinkable. And the results of that experiment are an undeniable success.

Kaima Glover, the New York Times

“See Now Then,” by Jamaica Kincaid

As must be obvious by now, it is in Kincaid’s extraordinarily elegiac style, peppered with flashes of rage, that we see the artist at work. “See Now Then” is a novel written in high dudgeon. You are warned of this from the very start: The portrait she gives us of our heroine is bleak, unremitting. “Her legs were too long, her torso too short; her nostrils flatted out like a deflated tent and came to rest on her wide fat cheeks; her ears appeared just where ears should be but then disappeared unexpectedly and if an account of them had to be made for evidence of any kind, memory of ears known in one way or another would have to be brought forth; her lips were like a child’s drawing of the earth before creation, a symbol of chaos, the thing not yet knowing its true form.” In other words, Mrs. Sweet was an aging black female. The last thing her white, effete husband expected her to become.

— Marie Arana, The Washington Post

One of several small sculptures of young boys, covered in molasses, with fruit baskets holding unrefined sugar accompany "“A Subtlety"” by Kara Walker. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
One of several small sculptures of young boys covered in molasses with fruit baskets holding unrefined sugar. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

“Wide Sargasso Sea,” by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea speaks of the history of cruelty and suffering that lies behind some of the West’s accumulated wealth, a history which in Jane Eyre is secret and mysterious, and only appears in brief glimpses. This is a book that gives voice to neglected, silenced and unacknowledged stories, exploring different inflections of marginality – gender, class, race and madness. Where historical events, recorded in written discourse, have shaped the opinions of many of the people of the former British colonies and education is exclusively from a Eurocentric perspective, the recovery of “lost” histories has a crucial role to play in allowing access to events and experiences which have not previously been recorded. This idea of “writing back” by breaking down explanations for events and favouring more localised narratives and perspectives has informed my own work, especially in the voices of the former slaves in my latest novel. Wide Sargasso Sea is an inspiration. Certainly, before the phrase was coined, Jean Rhys was a post-colonial writer whose work reminds us that “there is always another side, always.”

— Lara Fish, the Independent

“I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem” by Maryse Condé

History remembers Tituba as the West Indian slave who supposedly cast a spell on the young girls of Salem, Mass., and set off a tidal wave of paranoid accusations that left 19 “witches“ dead in its wake. But in the hands of novelist Maryse Conde, Tituba`s life becomes a marvelous canvas for exploring a particular dimension of the slave experience — how a young woman`s sexuality and skills as a healer ultimately made her an object of wonder and terror. …

Like Jean Rhys, Conde, who was born in Guadeloupe, is able to blend the fictional with the factual and imbue island scenes with remarkable lushness and enchantment. Author of five novels, five plays and a collection of Caribbean folk tales, she wrote this novel in 1986. Her husband, Richard Philcox, supplied the graceful translation from Conde`s native French. Just as Tituba`s voice should never have been silenced, Conde is too important a discovery for American audiences to ignore.

— Stephanie B. Goldberg, the Chicago Tribune

“Conquistadora,” by Esmerelda Santiago

If the American South had Scarlett O’Hara as its Civil War antiheroine, the English-speaking Caribbean of the 1800s had Annie Palmer. The real-life mistress of a Jamaican sugar estate during the final days of slavery, Palmer was the subject of legend and many lurid novels, most enduringly 1929’s “White Witch of Rosehall.” Lore says (most likely inaccurately) that Palmer practiced obeah, or sorcery; bedded slaves, then killed them; and murdered three husbands. She set the standard for cruelty and debauchery in a woman presiding over a plantation. …

But Santiago’s plantation mistress isn’t a shrew who derives sadistic pleasure from flogging her slaves. Nor is she their ministering angel, although she tends to the sick and oversees baptisms and prayers. Ana is something much more elusive and contradictory. She delegates the flogging, but flinches when the slaves scream.

— Gaiutra Bahadur, the New York Times

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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Lindsey Bever · May 27