A massive, brilliantly white, sugar-coated sphinx commanded visitors’ attention at the Kara Walker exhibition at the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn, New York last spring: 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. Referring to her artwork as a subtlety in the tradition of medieval and early modern confectionary sculptures, Walker highlights its character as a culinary political allegory: similar to the elaborate animal figurines and grandiose sugar buildings gracing the aristocratic tables of Europe from the 13th to 16th century, her Marvelous Sugar Baby is designed not only to delight but to deliver a message.
As the exhibit’s imposing title indicates, Walker’s sphinx is meant as a long-overdue tribute, on the occasion of the demolition of the Domino Plant – one of the oldest refineries in the US and once the largest in the world –, to the droves of “unpaid and overworked Artisans” that sustained the profitable sugar industry in the colonial era and beyond. Extracting and processing what Vincent Brown has called the “murderous commodity” of refined sugar, these slave laborers toiled not only to enable the titillation of middle and upper-class palates in Europe and North America, but, as Sidney Mintz has shown, from the 18th century onward primarily in order to sustain the energy needs of the working classes. In England, West Indian sugar, particularly in combination with East Indian tea, was quite literally feeding the proletariat – often at the price of the slaves’ lives – a fact late 18th century abolitionists were keenly aware of when calling for a nation-wide boycott of the “blood-stained” sugar from the colonies. Rendering her sphinx with pronounced African American facial features and surrounding her with a host of smaller, cane and molasses toting brown boy figurines, Walker brings into focus such white consumption of black labor. Moreover, in placing her sculpture into what she perceives as the cathedral-like space of industrial capitalism (the refinery), soon to be converted into the cathedral-like spaces of neoliberal consumerism (up-scale condominiums), the artist underlines that slavery has not only enabled the emergence of modern capitalism but that its ghosts are continuing to haunt the post-industrial economy as well; its legacies persistently evident in contemporary structures of production, accumulation, and distribution.
The Domino sugar deity is also a conspicuously gendered and sexualized figure (featuring the head kerchief of a stereotypical “Mammy,” along with voluminous breasts, buttocks, and an exposed vulva). With this, Walker posits in particular the black female body at the heart of the lucrative triangular traffic in human and material commodities between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. As seen repeatedly in her signature paper-cut silhouettes, which have catapulted her to fame and controversy, for the artist physical and sexual exploitation are intimately linked – not just in the history of slavery but also, and perhaps even more so, in our perception of this history and its legacies. “She is basically a New World sphinx. A New World thinking of the sugar plantations, the Americas, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the sort of Rolling Stones-y brown sugar dovetailing of sex and slavery as it reaches the American imagination,” Walker explains in an interview with Kara Rooney.
Walker’s sphinx is a composite of two distinct stereotypes: the mythical domestic caregiver (the Mammy), selflessly nurturing and sustaining the white middle-class family and the just as mythical, hypersexualized black slave mistress (Jezebel), seen as promiscuous and readily available to white appetites. Such provocative rehearsal of racist stereotypes, amplified by the enormous scale of the sculpture, adds quite a bitter taste to this sweet allegorical morsel. In blending debasing signifiers of blackness with the glaring whiteness of refined sugar, Walker’s sculpture points up another history of exploitation: the production and mythologization of whiteness precisely through visual constructions of crude blackness. David Selznick’s rendition of Hattie McDaniel as the stereotypical Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) are classic cases in point. In both images the black female body (marked by its dark color and coarseness of form) serves to highlight the delicacy, refinement, and, hence, the supposed superiority of the white woman – regardless of whether she presents a southern belle or a working girl of the demi monde. Reduced to such stereotypical, contrastive function, the black attendant stands before us deprived of subjectivity, her history receding into the dark background of slavery so as to enable the blazing projection of whiteness. Walker cites and challenges such aesthetic regimes of power by provocatively fusing popular mythologies of blackness with those of whiteness in her African American sugar sphinx. In revealing the black essence of the much-coveted whiteness of refined sugar, her Marvelous Sugar Baby brings to the fore the contingency of modern notions of whiteness on visual and discursive productions of blackness, particularly of the black female body. In this regard, Walker sees her sphinx as “a testament and a monument to the quest for whiteness” that has spurred the colonial enterprise economically, politically, and culturally.
As a culinary allegory, a subtlety is to underline the host’s power and political intent but, ultimately, it is meant to be consumed by the guests. With its overtly racialized and sexualized saccharine shape, Walker’s Sugar Baby signifies on her visitors’ cravings for the sustenance (physical, emotional, and sexual) promised by the racially marked female body (as Mammy or as Jezebel) – and with this, the artist points to yet another history and persisting legacy of the exploitation of blackness – the culinary codification of otherness for the sake of titillating and satisfying white appetites. According to bell hooks white mainstream culture frequently renders the encounter with Otherness as a process of consumption, as a form of “eating the other.” “ [W]hatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization,” hooks explains. And she finds such cravings for a “bit of the Other” evident in various facets of contemporary mainstream culture, particularly with regard to habits of visual, gustatory, and sexual consumption.
One might think that given Sugar Baby’s enormous size and unwieldy title as well as its not-all-too-subtle signifying on fraught histories of actual and mimetic exploitations of the black body, this particular artistic treat would surely resist such facile patterns of consumption – would, in fact, stick in the throat of its guests. And yet, many of the visitors showed no such digestive qualms in engaging with the sculpture, as evident in the swarm of selfies posted on instagram, displaying their owners in various suggestive poses of ogling, fondling, and licking the sphinx. To be sure, such behavior prompted vehement internet protests along with organized on-site interventions. And yet, Walker seems to have taken precisely such culinary interactions into account, perhaps even invited them. The exhibit’s inaugural gala dinner was, according to its hosts Creative Time, designed as “a night full of daring art, impeccable company, delicious dining, and unexpected fun” – the proceeds going to Freedom for All, a non-profit organization to end all slavery. What’s more, the artist closed the project with the production of a short film, recording visitors’ various interactions with the Sugar Baby.
Walker’s sphinx points to the history of slavery and its various, fraught contemporary legacies, but like the mythological sphinx of antiquity, it also guards the entrance to this history, provoking, confounding, and resisting our interpretative efforts. She literally gives the finger to the milling crowd about her trying to press her into service; the fingers of her left hand are crossed in the unmistakable manner of the fig sign. Silent and regal, she thus brings into focus the wide spectrum of our contemporary engagement with the legacy of slavery, ranging from insolent to silly to solemn.