A SUBTLETY: OR THE MARVELOUS SUGAR BABY,
An Homage To The Unpaid Overworked Artisans Who Have Refined Our Sweet Tastes From The Cane Fields To The Kitchens Of The New World
Ambiguity abounds in an old Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and it’s anything but subtle. Titled “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”, it is the first large scaled public project undertaken by artist Kara Walker. The name in part is derived from the sugar sculptures, called “subtlety’s”, that decorated the medieval dining tables of the early centuries but continues on to outline the plight of the black field and factory worker in a refined white world. The work is an enormous 75 foot long Sphinx-like sculpture that is both a monumental Mammy, and a monument to Mammy, naked except for her signature kerchief, entirely made of sugar. On one end her full breasts push forward as though her mission is to feed the world, on the other her big round bottom rises up in tribute to the endurance of their place in the world at the time.
The sculpture sits in a space that is more than a football field long and 5 stories high. It was built by Domino Sugar in 1927 as a space to hold huge amounts of raw sugar due for whitening; the walls still drip with molasses, and the smell of burnt sugar still fills the air. The plant was closed a decade ago and is now scheduled for demolition to provide space for new housing. The raw rusted metal columns and overhead beams look as though they are made from dark brown sugar. Positioned around these columns as attendants to the gleaming goddess are dark brown sugar babies, recreations of the child laborers who hold baskets once again in servitude to the white, sweet, and deadly. The ambiguity of an enormous glowing white sculpture of a black Mammy made of the same sweet sugar whose production was anything but sweet for the black laborer is not lost but stands as a clear statement of contrast on many levels – as stark as black and white.
The colossal confection is the first work of it’s size for the artist and was commissioned by Creative Time, a group known for their public arts projects. Nato Thompson, Creative Times Chief Curator looked up at the wonder and said “This feels like a Cecil B. DeMille set”. The public will get the chance to view the production from May 10, through July 6, on Fridays and Sundays. Many attendees to the opening event had mixed feelings about the subject matter expressing their distain at dredging up negative images of a painful past period rather than celebrating the accomplishments and achievements that have been made. Others reveled in the sumptuous carved curves of the voluptuous figure on view in gleaming white (but somehow always black), and appreciated the ambiguity of all that she represents.
There were also many experiencing a sense of loss for a factory that had withstood, had become part of the fabric of the City,and had become a familiar icon of the landscape – now set to become just another building destined to be demolished, as much of what was ”old New York” disappears into dust. As a born and bred New Yorker, Mazwell Osborne lamented the imminent loss of the factory that he said he once visited on a school trip. “It’s a bummer seeing New York lose a lot of it’s historical landmarks. It could be your favorite pizzeria or the Domino Factory”. Others expressed it with an “Everything is temporary” attitude. In my opinion the past is important and often beautiful, and there is no doubt that we stand on the past everyday. I often wonder why with our current resources and a wealth of brilliant architects, it is so difficult to preserve the old, or incorporate it into the new so that the two can coexist in respect for what was, while accommodating what will be.
Ms. Walker is an acclaimed artist best known for her graphic black and white cut-paper silhouettes, and animations that depict 19th Century moments of slavery and plantation life. They contrast the genteel owners with their slaves in provocative, sexually exploitive situations that are sometimes violent and guttural, but always impart fantastic flourishes of imagination with stark reality. Ms. Walker was awarded a $190,000 “genius” grant in 1997 from The MacArthur Foundation and has achieved meteoric success since her breakout installation at the Drawing Center in New York when she was 24 years old. Since then her work has been exhibited and owned by Museums across the United States and abroad as she has developed global recognition.
In this new sculptural exhibit she moves from her more familiar two dimensional cut-paper works, largely in black and white, to a three dimensional monument sized sculpture built and carved from giant blocks of sugar, or colossal sugar cubes . Ms. Walker has written: “Sugar crystallizes something in our American soul. It is emblematic of all industrial processes. And the idea of becoming white. While being equated with pure and “true” it takes allot of energy to turn brown things into white things. Allot of pressure.”
On a technical note regarding her current exhibit at the Domino Sugar Factory she offers special thanks to the fabricating sculptors who struggled with the amber candy material as it reacted to changes in temperature and humidity. The floor had to be power washed to loosen and dispel an inch of thick goo, while a molasses type of liquid dripped from the ceiling onto the sculpture. Rather than re-whitening the piece each time it received a drip, the artist decided she liked the dripping effect so they will leave it as it is, and watch how the piece ages with the history of the building, adding yet another layer to a continuing story.